Eyes Forward: The World of Smart Contact Lens Patents

3 Jun 2024

Chances are that every bizarre technology you have ever heard of has been claimed to be patented, protected, and highly confidential. Patents can be found where there's both innovation and commercial interest, highlighting the importance of a technology or field. This is certainly true for smart contact lenses, and even though almost no one is actually working on making them, you will be able to find dozens of patents proposing sometimes crazy solutions to how the gadget of the future should operate.

Our developments at XPANCEO, which were showcased by prototypes, are in the process of being patented, and we attach great importance to this area of work. Naturally, the first stage is analysis. In this article, we will discuss what is happening in this area and what results we have. Since understanding the intricacies of patents can be challenging, we'll start with some basic terminology to help make sense of things.

Defining patenting process

First of all, it's essential to understand that obtaining a patent is a complex and expensive process. It often takes several years to secure a full-fledged patent, which grants legal protection to an invention or a utility model. The basic idea behind patenting is to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Patents offer a deal: innovators reveal the main concepts to the public, and patents protect them from outright theft, much like how scientific papers share research results. Of course, companies want to protect what they expect to be profitable, so the process of determining novelty and granting intellectual rights usually takes time and a lot of money.

Moreover, there's no one-size-fits-all patent applicable globally. Filing an international application increases both time and cost and still covers many, but not all, countries in the world. Filing a patent application doesn't necessarily imply granting immediate feasibility. It signifies intent and, if granted, offers a 20-year window during which the innovator has the exclusive right to develop and produce their idea. Overall, when a company that has existed for less than, say, three years proudly announces that some of its developments are patented, it is most likely not true. They may already have started their long journey toward obtaining patents, and the bad news is that after all the expenses and time spent, the application doesn’t necessarily mean they will be granted any.

Here's how the process unfolds:

When a company or individual comes up with something new, they file a priority patent application—a primary set of documents that officially registers a new, unique group of technical solutions under a single inventive concept. This application can be either international or local, but in any case, it describes the key ideas behind something new and potentially useful. These criteria are evaluated by a dedicated committee that analyzes the field through a patent search; usually, this process takes around a year. If the invention is deemed patentable, the innovator receives a patent. However, even if no novelty is found, after 18 months the main ideas are published in the form of a patent publication in which the company itself describes the main features of the invention.

After the international search phase, it's possible to apply for patents in one or more countries– the national stage. This stage usually takes another 30-32 months. Now, the invention is evaluated once again, each time within a specific country, and the verdict may vary from one jurisdiction to another. This means that if a company files a priority application for an invention, it may result in a different number of patents in different countries, all belonging to the same patent family and describing the same technology. That's why it's crucial to pay attention to priority applications rather than the patents themselves: although they are delayed, they provide the most realistic picture of a company’s activity.

Pretty complicated and long, isn't it?

Now, let's dive into the realm of smart contact lenses.

Smart contact lens developers

As far as we know, there are only three companies apart from XPANCEO that have disclosed that they have ever started working on the smart contact lenses and have filed patent applications. As we’ve described above, we will have a look at the main metrics over the years.

  1. Mojo Vision

Even though Mojo Vision has made significant contributions to the field of smart contact lenses, they eventually pivoted to microdisplays. But as we’ve already mentioned, the patenting process is somewhat delayed, so more and more publications are appearing at the moment, shedding light on what their plans used to be. Since 2008, the company, operating commercially as Tectus, has published a total of 108 priority applications. This averages out to about six new inventions per year, but this number may be a bit misleading: usually, a company starts with a couple of applications, and that number grows as it matures.

Tectus: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

Their application has already resulted in 206 publications and 123 patents in several major jurisdictions, including the United States, China, the European Patent Office, and Japan. Among them are various electronic solutions that suggest the application of traditional optical structures in the lens. For example, they detail an ultra-dense LED matrix, approximately 200x200 in size, for use in smart contact lenses. The design features color pixels spaced about 2 microns apart, with variable pixel sizes in the inner and outer areas of the matrix. Anotherpatent describes a novel use of smart contact lenses for user authentication through vergence movements, in which the eyes focus on objects at varying distances. The application highlights the benefits of such a dynamic recognition system, particularly its resilience to hacking.

  1. Innovega

This company is actively developing an integrated optical system that combines smart contact lenses with glasses. Since 2008, the company has filed 25 priority applications each year ranging from 0 to 4. They have patented their work internationally, so their number of patent publications is multiplied: in total, there were 117 of them. Innovega has received 36 patents in various countries, including the United States, Japan, Austria, the European Patent Office, and South Korea.

Innovega: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

Because they envision smart contact lenses as a companion to glasses, their approach is completely different from the one we take at XPANCEO. For example, one of their patents describes a system in which the glasses physically interact with the contact lenses. Specific details, such as the mechanics of how the glasses press against the eyes, are not included in this document, but the glasses touching the eyes might seem a bit uncomfortable.

  1. InWith Corporation

This company is quite an intriguing player in the realm of smart contact lens technology, although its position in the field is somewhat complex due to the fact that its patents are owned by another entity. This is a fairly common case of a company operating commercially under a different name: recall MojoVision and Tectus. However, all of their patents belong to a larger company, EP GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS INC, which owns literally thousands of patents on various matters.

EP GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS INC: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

As we have learned from the company’s social media, it has one patent family that has already received patents in the USA, yet international search has concluded that there is no novelty in this particular application.

They describe a lens that adjusts its focus based on the visual needs of the user, mimicking or enhancing the eye's natural ability to focus. However, more research is needed to dive into the complexities of the company: at the very least, they claim that their work is protected by more than 100 patents.

Larger companies

Since smart contact lenses are such a hot topic, it wouldn't be too surprising to learn that major corporations are showing interest in shaping the future of this technology. Even if none of them are currently producing smart lenses, they may want to patent this technology in case they want to start production in the next 20 years. Naturally, the big players will not be intimidated by costly and tiresome procedures even if they never plan to enter the field directly. Here’s a closer look at those with the most applications in the sphere of smart contact lenses.

  1. Johnson and Johnson

Johnson and Johnson, a longstanding giant in healthcare and contact lens production in particular, has been remarkably active in the patent domain, with a staggering 9,830 priority patent applications filed since 1893, averaging about 75 applications per year. Since 1991, there have been 341 applications related to smart contact lenses –  just over 3% of their total activity.

 Johnson and Johnson: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

An example of their work is a patent that introduces a new lens material that combines hydrophilic and hydrophobic monomers. This material not only promises better comfort but also provides an improved refractive index.

  1. IBM

IBM, traditionally known for its prowess in computing and IT solutions, has also ventured into the smart lens field. Since 1915, they have filed a total of 165,380 priority applications, and the 41 of them that cover smart contact lenses from 2002 represent an almost negligible proportion of 0.025%.

IBM: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

One of the curious patents describes a method of maintaining power in smart contact lenses using an induction coil that interacts with an external magnetic field. Another intriguing proposal suggests a lens that enhances sound from specific directions by aligning with the user’s gaze—a feature that could integrate well with augmented reality systems.

  1. Menicon

Menicon, another specialist in eye care, has a focused portfolio with 989 priority applications since 1977. Among these, 62 patents are dedicated to smart contact lenses. For example, one patent explores the integration of electronics into contact lenses to offer digital enhancements.

Menicon: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

  1. META

Meta, originally a social media company, has entered the field of wearable technology, primarily with VR headsets. They have filed 2,977 priority applications since 2005, of which 34 have been related to smart contact lenses since 2013.

META: the red line shows the number of priority applications, the black line – the number of all patent publications  

In particular, one patentdiscusses the use of liquid lenses to maintain high contrast in AR devices under temperature fluctuations. Another outlines the creation of a multilayer lens for VR and AR aimed at ensuring precision and reducing internal stress in these critical components.

New players

So, what sets XPANCEO’s achievement apart when nearly every company boasts around 100 patents? The answer is simple: we are significantly younger, and for a company our age, we have put in a monumental amount of effort. As mentioned earlier, most companies start with just one or two patent applications per year: just take a look at the graphs.

Since 2022, we've submitted 11 priority applications covering various aspects of smart contact lenses, from the production of new optical materials to mind-control interfaces. With the imminent release of our first patent publications, we will finally be able to unveil the innovations we've been working on. But before lifting the veil of secrecy, it's essential to note that we've taken a different approach. We leverage novel 2D materials as thin as atoms, holography, gradient lenses, complex diffraction methods, and more. And, of course, unlike other corporations’ developing smart contact lenses is actually our goal, not something we may or may not consider in ten years. The first of the patent applications was just published!

In it, we propose to use the properties of 2D materials to bend and control light more effectively. The main challenge of smart contact lenses is fitting all the components into a limited size. This is why we use the smallest possible materials, which consist of just one layer of atoms. However, we have proven that their size is not the only feature we can utilize.

2D materials have unique properties that allow them to control light within a limited size due to their high gradient of refractive index. The measure of how much light bends or changes direction varies in different parts of these materials. This allows us to control light more effectively to project images and more.

Our approach is to patent what we believe is achievable in the near term rather than speculative technologies for the distant future. As we plan to begin testing the perfect smart contact lens as early as the end of 2026, it is crucial to ensure that the technology we use is feasible. That is why, unlike others, we openly and extensively showcase our prototypes and demonstrate the tangible progress we've made.