XPANCEO takes us inside its lab where it makes smart contact lenses

You know that I’m a big fan of AR contact lenses: while making AR glasses is already incredibly complex, some amazing innovators are betting on the impossible battle to miniaturize all that is needed to do AR into small lenses. And the cool thing is that they are even managing to produce some prototypes.

XPANCEO is one of these few companies betting on this futuristic technology. And I was pretty excited to have a video call with them a few weeks ago, where I met the cofounders Roman Axelrod and Valentyn Volkov. They’ve not only answered a few questions, but they have even led me to a remote virtual tour of their R&D laboratory where they showed me a few prototypes they are working on. It’s been so amazing!

XPANCEO’s lab virtual tour

You can watch the full video with the interview and the remote tour of the lab in the video here below. It’s been incredibly interesting to see how the laboratory of a company making contact lenses is made. Since a virtual tour can not be exactly translated into text, I strongly suggest you have a look at the video if you have the time:

Their connection had some issues and the video has some hiccups, but it’s cool nonetheless

If you are in a hurry and don’t have 1 hour to invest in this post, I’ll summarize the most important points of the interview and the lab tour here below in textual form, as usual.

How XPANCEO started

XPANCEO promotional video

XPANCEO (to be pronounced with the stress on the A) starts from the desire of Roman Axelrod to improve current technology: “In the last 5 years I had the belief that I have been surrounded by inconvenient gadgets” he says. He thinks that it makes no sense that every day we have to use a tablet, a smartphone, a PC, a gaming console, not to mention the smartwatch, and so on to do our tasks. He wanted to have “a gadget to rule them all”. He thought that this gadget could be smart contact lenses, so of course he needed someone to be able to miniaturize electronics a lot. So he reached out to Valentyn Volkov, who is a known expert in the field of nanoelectronics and special materials. They decided to join forces, so they established a company and bootstrapped it, starting to make prototypes and file patents. Then things started getting bigger when they received $40M from an Asian VC fund.

xpanceo valentyn volkov
Valentyn Volkov wearing a prototype of his lenses (Image by XPANCEO)

When I asked why they went for smart contact lenses and not for the standard route of AR glasses, they answered that contact lenses offer a few advantages:

  • Being them on the eyes, they offer an “infinite field of view”. What they meant is that the display systems of AR glasses should cope with the fact that eyes can move in all directions, so if you put an AR window in front of the eye and it rotates, you don’t see augmentations anymore. Contact lenses, on the contrary, are installed on the eyes, so they just have to take care of guaranteeing the full field of view related to the eye vision system, and eye movements do not influence it at all
  • They are in touch with the eye surface and are soaked into the eye liquids, so they can act as biosensors and detect specific information about the body
  • Since they are installed directly on the eye, they can give you superpowers like night vision
  • The best device is no device: contact lenses do not require you to wear glasses on your face.

Valentyn also jokingly added that making glasses is too easy and he wanted a real challenge.

A video where Roman Axelrod presents his company

Special nanomaterials

The unique value proposition of XPANCEO, when compared to competitors like Mojo Vision, is its incredible expertise in two-dimensional materials and nanophotonics.

Valentyn explained to me that there is a lot of research on the manipulation of light, because light can be used to transmit information or send energy between two places. But it is difficult to manipulate light at the nanoscale because of diffraction: you can’t squeeze light to a dimension smaller than its wavelength, which is in the order of magnitude of a micrometer, which is huge compared to the dimensions at which current chips operated, which is nanometers. Then around 25 years ago, this situation changed when two scientists developed the first 2-dimensional material and they discovered that these materials have very interesting properties. 2D materials are basically materials whose thickness is around 1 atom. Imagine it as a material that looks like a horizontal sheet of molecules, as you can see in this Wikipedia image about Graphene.

Graphene. Look at its atomic structure: it looks like a sheet, as if it was a 2D material (Image by AlexanderAlUS – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikipedia)

These 2D materials (or low-dimensional materials) have been a research topic for the last 25 years and the XPANCEO team has a solid expertise in them. In their lab, they have some machineries that let them create components by assembling layers of these 2D materials one on top of the others (like a lasagna… sorry for the very Italian comparison), mixing their properties until they obtain a component with the desired properties.

They try to apply these low-dimensional materials to basically every component of the lenses, and as we will see later on, this can lead to very cool results.

Smart contact lens structure

In this slide, you can see the structure of the final lens that XPANCEO is aiming at building:

xpanceo smart contact lens structure
All the components that make up a smart contact lens (Image by XPANCEO)

There is of course a display to let you see the AR elements; a battery to power the device; and an antenna to let the lens communicate with an external device like the smartphone. This is something we have already seen in other contact lenses, like Mojo Vision. But it’s quite interesting to see the other additions they are aiming to add:

  • Solar cells to recharge the battery: they told me they are actively researching this
  • Biosensors to measure important body parameters, like the glucose levels
  • A camera, which will let you record what you are seeing
  • A neural interface, which should detect your intentions so that you don’t need to do some weird eye movements to command the lenses, but you can use more natural commands. As TechCrunch reports: “It describes ‘neural interfacing’ as the technique it will use to give wearers of its lenses full control over applications without them needing to use ‘awkward’ eye movements or extra controllers. (Some prototypes of other smart or connected lenses involve users lowering eyelids to change functions, for example.)”. They say that using AI and biosensors they can give you the impression of controlling the lens with your mind.

What impressed me was the idea of having a camera on the lens. I already find it a science fiction thing to have a display and a battery on a contact lens… but having even a camera is crazy (they told me it’s a feature that is present in the latest Batman movie… we are really into things that seem coming from a comic book). That would be important to match the offering of AR glasses, though: we are seeing with the Ray-Ban Meta how people love to take pictures and videos from their point of view, so if we want AR contact lenses to be popular, they should allow for picture taking, too. Of course, someone should think about how it is possible to take a stable video when the eyes make all those saccadic movements.

Potential use cases

Of course in the long term, smart contact lenses could be used for everything, but in the short term, they are mostly interested in experimenting with the use of contact lenses for:

  • Providing night vision to the user
  • Measuring body parameters through the lenses
  • Using the camera for recording videos

It’s too early to already talk about potential partnerships, though.

Release date and price

xpanceo lens stick
XPANCEO lens on a stick (Image by XPANCEO)

When I talked with Roman and Valentyn about the feasibility of the lenses, they seemed very confident about being able to deliver a product. They told me they have not found so far any roadblock that seems insurmountable. “Everything is just a matter of money, time, and manpower,” said Valentyn. He sees the realization of the contact lens just as an engineering problem that can be solved with the right roadmap. I liked how he spoke like everything he was doing was perfectly normal, while he’s actually working on some crazy futuristic technology. He had the same confidence I had if someone asked me to make a Unity app with just a cube.

At the current status, XPANCEO has a bunch of prototypes of the different components of the lenses. What they have to do is to perfect these prototypes, then assemble everything together and obtain the first lens. To arrive at mass production, first of all, they have to work on obtaining the right certifications because a contact lens is a medical device and should be certificated before any user can wear it. Then they have to understand how to mass-produce the lenses.

They haven’t told me any expected final price, but of course, the idea is to make in the long term the lenses available to the average consumers exploiting the cost reductions given by mass production. As for the delivery date, the founders claimed during various events that they hope to have the first complete lens by 2026.

The differences with Mojo Vision

mojo vision eyes on hands on
Me trying a prototype of the Mojo Vision contact lenses at AWE US

You know that I’ve been a huge fan of Mojo Vision, the company making smart contact lenses that I’ve met multiple times at AWE. You may wonder what are the differences between the two companies. Well, I saw mostly three:

  • The general attitude: Mojo was very corporate, and very attentive in every bit of communication. XPANCEO seems more relaxed in this sense and they had no problem in making me see their lab, for instance. This may also be a cultural fact: Mojo was a company established in the US, while XPANCEO has been set in Dubai by East-European cofounders
  • Mojo Vision was working on hard scleral lenses, while XPANCEO is also experimenting with soft lenses made with hydrogel
  • Mojo Vision worked with traditional (yet innovative) electronics, while XPANCEO is creating its own nanocomponents using low-dimensional materials.

Anyway, Roman told me that the two companies know well each other.

The prototypes and the lab tour

The remote lab tour has been pretty cool to perform. Also because they told me that they’ve just been awarded for being one of the top 5 optics labs in the world for the field they are working on. Let me tell you what have been the most interesting things that I saw there.

First of all, Valentyn showed me how they do the tests. Of course, they can not test experimental technologies on real eyes, because it would be too dangerous. So they have some “artificial eye” devices through which they can test the lens properties as if they were on a real eye. The artificial eye seemed like a little black box.

He showed me one of the biosensors they are working on, which measures the inter-ocular pressure, which is important to know because with age it increases and leads to diseases like glaucoma. XPANCEO’s approach for measuring inter-ocular pressure is completely optical and it works with the nanomaterials described above. They assembled some layers of 2D materials that stimulated by the pressure create an interference pattern from the analysis of which it is possible to measure the pressure values.

Another sensor they showed me was able to detect the glucose levels in the eye liquids. They showed me how the kind of sensors they do can also be used to detect if someone is drunk, which could be useful to verify if someone can drive. By putting some ethanol in the liquid put in the artificial eye, the sensor detection spiked in front of me.

The graph with the values detected by the biosensor on the lens (Sorry for the potato quality of the image, it was taken during the videostream and there were compression issues)

Then he let me see the contact lens on a stick, something I’ve already seen when doing my tests with Mojo Vision. At the center of the lens, there was the holographic projector. He showed me both hard and soft contact lens prototypes containing these holographic optics. It was pretty cool when he took a soft contact lens, put it inside a stick, and then put the stick on top of a laser emitter: focusing at the center of the lens, I could see the laser forming the logo of the company. The hologram in the lens was scattering the light to form the pattern of the logo. That was impressive: most people I know use soft contact lenses made of hydrogel, and the fact that XPANCEO has managed to create a display in them is very important to make sure that smart contact lenses of the future may be comfortable for everyone.

This stick contains a soft contact lens. That little green dot you see inside is the display which shows XPANCEO logo (Sorry for the potato quality of the image, it was taken during the videostream and there were compression issues)

The image this prototype was showing was in the classical green monochrome color. I so asked if they could also show something with full RGB colors. I’ve been told that currently they are experimenting with just one color for the sake of simplicity, but moving to three colors shouldn’t be an issue and they know how to do that.

hard lens xpanceo
The rigid lens on a stick shown during the lab tour (Sorry for the potato quality of the image, it was taken during the videostream and there were compression issues)

He showed me another prototype where they validated that if they put together the optical path and the electrical path they imagined for the lenses, everything still works. Valentyn told me that one of the cool things about the power needed by a smart contact lens is that all the energy consumption is very optimized because the display shows the image just to the eye. Glasses, on the contrary, have to completely illuminate their displays, and a lot of light rays are dispersed in directions that are not the one towards the eye. Furthermore, lenses are right on top of the eye, so their light rays have a shorter path to reach the retina so they need less power. The issue is, how you can imagine, developing a microscopic battery for this device.

Then it came the part that blew my mind the most. He showed me a smart (rigid) contact lens made with traditional electronics, like the ones that Mojo was used to do. It had the usual shape of this kind of device: a transparent lens with a ring of opaque electronic components.

mojo vision smart contact lens stick
Mojo Vision lens: you see that the center of the lens is transparent, but all around it there are traditional miniaturized circuits

Then he showed me two prototypes made by XPANCEO: thanks to the use of the special 2D materials and nanoelectronics, the lenses were almost fully transparent. That was simply black magic to me. He said they had patents about this nano-technology, and to prove to me that the lenses actually worked, he showed me one transparent lens on the testbed with two electrodes giving electricity to it and the center of the lens illuminating. That was crazy cool to see.

xpanceo transparent smart contact lenses
Traditional lenses are mostly opaque, while XPANCEO can make ones that are almost transparent (Sorry for the potato quality of the image, it was taken during the videostream and there were compression issues)

He said to me that at this stage they are trying different approaches for all the various components, and they are testing both traditional electronic parts and their own special 2D materials. They are experimenting with the layering of different types of 2D materials: using some special types of machinery they have in the lab, they can make many different “lasagnas” of materials to obtain the properties they want from them, either to make them sensors, or projectors, or whatever else they want.

Final impressions

xpanceo smart contact lenses pitch
XPANCEO’s cover of its pitch deck (Image by XPANCEO)

When I publish articles about smart contact lenses I always obtain mixed comments: some people are overly excited by the tech, while others are skeptical that this may ever happen in the short or medium-term future. Personally, having tried Mojo Vision contact lenses on a stick, and having seen the video of the CEO of the company wearing a lens in his eyes, I am pretty convinced that this technology is coming sooner than we expect, at least in a first form. Of course, mass commercialization is still many years away.

This video still gives me goosebumps after years of its publication

XPANCEO proved to me that they are on the right track to deliver something meaningful. They have funds, they have the talents, and they have enough confidence in what they’re doing to give me a full tour of their laboratory. They showed me prototypes and I could see with my eyes (ehm, virtual eyes) that they were working, so for sure, this company is not just smoke and mirrors.

The work they are doing on these special 2D materials is impressive and it was crazy to see a full-transparent smart contact lens: that is important also to give the wearer a more natural look and not make him/her resemble a cyborg. On the website, you can find the reference to many scientific articles they wrote about the research they are doing and this validates their expertise in the field. For sure the work they are doing may also inspire other companies to follow the same route.

I think the ingredients for doing something cool are there. Then from here, it is a matter of money, time, and manpower, as Valentyn said. But, being an entrepreneur, I can assure you that these three factors can not taken for granted… they are actually very difficult to have. The story of Mojo Vision, which had to pivot away from its dream of creating smart contact lenses teaches us that especially money is a very important factor for a company that aims at a long-term-future technology. And soon XPANCEO will also have to face the big difficulty of assembling all the prototypes they have of the various components in a single product, and this is a step that always leads to problems.

There are many issues the team has to face, but as I’ve said, as for today, they seem on the right track. I want to hope for the best and I wish that XPANCEO will be able to deliver what it is promising. Good luck to Roman, Valentyn, and all the team!

(Header image by XPANCEO)

The post XPANCEO takes us inside its lab where it makes smart contact lenses appeared first on The Ghost Howls.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://skarredghost.com/2024/04/29/xpanceo-smart-contact-lenses-lab/