From the University of Washington campus to the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Desney Tan appears to be all over the Seattle area.
His day jobs include being a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, managing two groups, one in Redmond and the other in Beijing, China, both centering on the fusion of computers and human body movements. He is also an affiliate faculty at the UW.
Specifically, Tan and his team are experimenting with contact lenses. With microchips and computer circuits, researchers are using tears to gain an easier reading of blood-sugar levels, particularly important for diabetics.
Tan got into this project not only for the humanitarian aspect of helping diabetics worldwide, but also for personal reasons.
“Like many Asians, I have a family history of diabetes and am actually personally at high-risk for Type II diabetes, so I monitor this very closely,” Tan said via email. “That said, the work was actually motivated by the fact that this affects hundreds of millions of people around the world, and current monitoring techniques are inconvenient and quite painful — e.g. drawing blood by pricking the finger. As a result, they can only be done a few times a day at best, and we feel we should be able to do better and continuously monitor this much less invasively.”
Tan is a pioneer in this type of human-computer interaction, garnering honors as one of MIT Technology Review’s Young Innovators Under 35 in 2007, SciFi Channel’s Young Visionaries in 2009, and one of Forbes’ Revolutionaries. His resume lists articles including: “Your Noise is My Command: Sensing Gestures Using the Body as an Antenna” and “Optically Sensing Tongue Gestures for Computer Input.”
The Singapore native graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre
Dame in 1996 with a degree in computer engineering. After his mandatory service
of two years in the Singapore Armed Forces as a lieutenant, Tan returned to school and received his doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004.
His most recent research, a joint-cooperative project between Microsoft and the UW, is creating headlines in science web publications like Gizmag and The Technology Review. Brian Otis, his research partner and associate professor at the UW’s electrical engineering department, offered a summary of the assignment.
“Our lens monitors glucose present in the tear film on the eye,” Otis wrote in an email. “It uses an electrochemical glucose sensor embedded in the contact lens.”
Tan has been working with Microsoft on the functional contact lens project for the past few years. Likewise, making contact lenses more efficient is simply a piece of the overall intent of creating natural user interfaces (NUIs), combining how people interact with computers with natural body movements, making communication with computers more seamless, like Xbox 360’s Kinect.
Otis and Tan work with a number of UW faculty and grad students on this project.These include Babak Parviz, associate professor in the electrical engineering department, and Dr. Tueng Shen, associate professor of ophthalmology and adjunct in bioengineering.
“We have been able to make progress in a relatively short period of time,” Tan
said. “Although there remain many hard — and amazingly fun — challenges to solve, ranging from the sensor itself and fabrication to efficiency of wireless communications and power to bio-compatibility to more pragmatic mass manufacturing processes.”
However, this project is still not close to completion. There are a number of things the research team needs to attend to at this stage.
“Our team knew this was an ambitious project, but that’s what made it so appealing,” Tan said. “At a high level, there are several challenges that need to be addressed first before this becomes a product. We need to understand how contact lenses are manufactured today so that we can project what changes to the process would be necessary to embed technology into them.”
Shen added insight by breaking down the barriers the team would have to overcome to make this concept a reality. She stated that first approaching how to collect data of glucose in tears — which is directly correlated to blood-sugar levels but in small concentrations — allows the research to advance by creating displays and refining the accuracy of the sensors.
I think that the idea of using wireless microsensors to monitor health care, that could have a really great impact on many different areas,” Shen said. “If you look at diseases now that we haven’t really had a good treatment, these may offer some insights to what we can look for early, in addition to diabetes.”
At the moment, the functional contact lens with sensors is in its early testing phase.
“The sensors right now have only been tested on the bench … but it’s a very important first step to identify what range of glucose levels we can measure.”
The next stage will be in-depth studies, first on animals, and then people. This will be crucial to how ready the product will be and when it could be available on the market.
“At this point, we are working hard to make this technology a reality and hope to be able to push this out to consumers as soon as everything is ready,” Tan said.