Two developments in optics technology might be giving us a snapshot of the future of medical technology – and have the potential to transform your daily life. The first comes from 2AI Labs, a Boise, Idaho-based research institute founded several years ago by Dr. Mark Changizi and Dr. Tim Barber that tackles foundational problems in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Last summer the team at 2AI Labs created three pairs of glasses called the O2Amps (the Oxy-Iso, Hemo-Iso and Oxy-Amp) based on Changizi’s groundbreaking color theory, which posits that color vision in humans evolved not to spot tasty fruits in the forest but to detect oxygenation and hemoglobin variation in the skin. These variations cause reddening and whitening of the face – visual cues essential to social interaction and impossible to spot without color vision.
Particularly newsworthy is the Oxy-Iso. After conducting informal trials last fall, Changizi and his team confirmed their hunch that the lenses corrected red-green colorblindness. For example, normally red-green colorblind users reported perfect scores on the Ishihara Color Test. (The only downside is the Oxy-Isos make it difficult to see yellows and blues, a complication especially problematic for drivers.)
Here’s the question: Are there medical implications of the O2Amps? 2AI Labs has a few answers already. Last summer they conducted trials with all three lens in hospitals with positive results. Depending on which of the O2Amp lens are used, nurses and doctors were able to identify veins, trauma and bruising more easily. In a dramatic testimonial, Jason Steinfeld, a Respiratory Therapist, recounted that “during the height of [Hurricane] Sandy, we successfully delivered a pre-term baby at 35 weeks in a church. I used the glasses to detect oxygenation as the child came out and it helped prevent intubation knowing that vital information.”
Equally compelling is this video (key moment at 6:00).
This brings me to the second development. In an exhilarating conference last summer, Sergey Brin introduced Google Glasses to the world. The high-tech eyewear covers one eye with a translucent square that includes a tiny screen that displays helpful information. A recently released promotional video illustrates the potential uses of Google Glasses in daily life; just imagine walking around with all your social information, calendar, and access to Google maps comfortably in your peripheral vision.
Can we use Google Glasses in medicine? To gain some insight I spoke with Dr. Daniel Kraft, Executive Director of FutureMed. According to Kraft, researchers are currently working on integrating real-time medical data and accelerometer technology with Google Glasses. This means that a doctor conducting a standard check up could, for example, see vital signs or body temperature simply by looking at the patient and even look up photos of past injuries to check for signs of improvement.
It gets cooler. During surgery, Google Glass could provide instructions, check lists or overlay patients with past CT, MRI or other important scans. A next step might be combining voice activation and Google Hangout with the nifty eyewear. This already-existing technology would, for example, allow a surgeon to communicate with another surgeon during a check-up or surgery. “Think how helpful this could be for young surgeons in rural clinics. With Google Glass an experienced surgeon could be present every step of the way,” Kraft explained.
Kraft also reports that Google has developed kits for Google Glass so that developers can start building apps (just like Apple did with the iPhone) on the Glass platform. He speculates that within a year of release the eyewear will start to take off and it will only be a matter of time before it gains traction in medicine and daily life. For example, it could help track calories, provide diet advice or use Google Hangout to stream a video of a personal trainer. The good news is that elements of many of these applications are already in trials.
The future of medical technology is a thorny domain. Acquiring funds, producing successful results and gaining government approval are just a few of the many hurdles an emerging technology faces. But recent developments at 2AI labs and Google in optic technology suggest that the next few years will be bright.