Google Stole Its Smart Contact Lens From Microsoft. And That's a Good Thing

Google latest bombshell of a research project is a smart contact lens diabetics can use to read blood sugar levels through the tears in their eyes. Thanks to a tiny microchip, Google says, the lens can provide a new glucose reading as often as once a second.

Some have pointed out that the project follows in the footsteps of rival Microsoft, but this is merely another reason to applaud Google, a company with a knack for bringing research into the real world that we'll likely never see from Microsoft.

The lens Google unveiled on Thursday seems to draw heavily, if not directly, from work done by Microsoft. As TechCrunch notes, one of the Googlers behind the project, Babak Parvis, once collaborated with the Redmond software giant on a lens the company fashioned for tracking blood sugar without needles.

Google has a knack for bringing research into the real world that we'll likely never see from Microsoft

So, no, the Google lens isn't all that new. But it's still worthy of attention, mainly because it's coming from Google.

At Google, you see, this kind of blue-sky research isn't just blue-sky research. Its research operations are designed to work in step with the rest of the company, and push its work as close to the commercial realm as possible. That means the stuff coming out of Google skunkworks programs like the Google X Lab has a very real chance of seeing the light of day, unlike much of the research happening at Microsoft.

This is true not only of eye-catching gadgets like Google Glass - another graduate of the Google X Lab that gave birth to the new smart lens - but also the countless research projects that aim to fundamentally remake how we build software and how computers operate. In so many cases, these projects - from the Google Brain artificial intelligence project that's improving Android's voice recognition tools to the Borg software system underpinning Google's entire software empire - have already remade Google and countless other companies intent on following its lead.

Google has stocked its research operation with some of the sharpest minds from places like DEC and Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, and they've created new-age software like Google MapReduce and the Google File System and the Google BigTable database. These massive creations run across thousands of computers and are now the basis for how vast swathes of the web store and analyze data. MapReduce and GFS gave rise to Hadoop, software now used by everyone from Facebook and eBay to countless everyday businesses. Borg, a means of carefully spreading computing tasks across entire data centers of machines, has already inspired the new computing system that underpins Twitter.

John Wilkes, who oversees the creation of Google's next incarnation of Borg, once worked at HP Labs. But for decades, he struggled to get his creations out into the larger world. At Google, that's no longer much of a problem. The Google research model, Wilkes has told us, 'increases the value of the ideas, and provokes more need to be circumspect, compared to when I was working on ideas that weren't going to make it into a product.'

Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat - perhaps the two most respected research engineers inside Google - once worked in the world class labs at fallen computer giant DEC. And they too will tell you that Google's approach to research is a cry from what you'll find at the old tech behemoths.

It happens time and again. Google will hire the world's top researchers and push them so very close to the front lines. There's Geoff Hinton, the University of Toronto professor who is building new breed of AI into things like Android and Google+. There's Rob Pike, the former Bell Labs researcher who is remaking Google's online service with a brand new programming languages called Go. There's Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor who is now pushing Google into the brave new world of self-driving cars. And, yes, there's Babak Parvis, who once collaborated with Microsoft and now works at Google, not only on contacts lenses, but Google Glass.

Yes, Google is following Microsoft with its new lens. But that means the gadget may actually change the world, rather than gathering dust in a lab.

Cade Metz is the editor of Wired Enterprise. Got a NEWS TIP related to this story -- or to anything else in the world of big tech? Please e-mail him: cade_metz at

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