Juggling Grains of Sand
Hear Distinguished Engineer Don Ice explain how he squeezes all of Mojo Lens’ dynamic components into small spaces.Mar 31, 2021
For starters, what are you working on at Mojo?
My efforts are primarily hardware focused. I’m working on the lens electronics, finding ways for all the components to fit and work together.
How did you get started in this business?
I’ve been designing electromechanical products since the beginning of my career 40 years ago. When I started out designing handheld devices, products were still designed on paper and many modern tools didn’t exist. But still it satisfied something in me—I really liked solving these 3D geometric puzzles that squeeze as much functionality as possible into unique housings and products.
Twenty years ago, I worked in the fiber optic industry on transceivers; they convert electric pulses into laser pulses and vice versa. The modules are so tiny that you hold in your fingers, but they still have a ton of functionality packed into them. That was my prelude to the Mojo approach of packing items down into very small volumes—and doing so efficiently and reliably.
A lot of people here at Mojo have experience in technology as well as medical fields. Are you one of them?
Actually, yes! I did have a project where we were also miniaturizing larger, existing technology to work within a medical device. This was in 2008, when I helped develop a noninvasive glucose spotter—a wearable, continuous monitor for diabetics. Rather than having to do finger sticks all the time, users could wear our device under their clothes. It would shine light from a laser on their skin and analyze the light that bounced back, then send continuous blood glucose readings to their phone.
We started with a custom, extremely exotic spectrometer that used Raman spectroscopy. It was the size of a shopping cart, and I had to turn that into a tiny wearable device about the size of a cellphone. Not an easy task, but hey, I love a challenge! Ultimately, we did create this tiny device, but it never shipped. For me it's the “one that got away,” and we were so close!
Still, it was an exciting experience to be in this crucible of incredibly smart people, a small team where everybody is the best at what they do. It's hard to emphasize how inspiring that environment is to work and design in.
Which brings us to your work here at Mojo.
For Mojo Lens, I figure out how all the electronic components fit and work together on the lens. Which, given the very small space, is hard enough. But on top of that, we have to make sure that what we design can be manufactured at scale reliably and affordably.
As with any product that is assembled or manufactured, there’s a whole sequence of process steps: you start at the beginning and go all the way to the end, and when you're done, you end up with this contact lens that someone can put on their eye. Some steps are standardized, and some are custom/unique to the product—in our case, many processes are considered custom.
What challenges are presented by working in a small form factor like a contact lens?
Well, besides a contact lens being very small, it’s also oddly shaped as an electronic. Most electronic devices are kind of flat and rectangular, so existing electronic components also tend to be flat and rectangular slabs. It’s tricky fitting those into the volume of a curved shape like a contact lens.
And of course, a contact lens has to be a certain exact size, so the amount of space that you have to work with is absolutely constrained—there's no real opportunity to grow things, even hypothetically. In one sense, it's a little freeing; if they don't fit into a contact lens, you don't even have think about them. It focuses the mind, that’s for sure!
So, my whole thrust at Mojo has been taking the inputs and working the puzzle, just turning things over in my head all day and sometimes all night. Figuring out how to arrange things and connect things in a way that is functional and elegant. Oh - and space-efficient and process-efficient as well.
How small are the components you’re talking about?
About the size of a grain of sand in some cases, roughly speaking. And you have to pick up each component, manipulate it, attach it, and test it. When you're talking about making a physical thing out of multiple parts at that scale, that's really amazing. Everything is a game of microns.
When I'm designing the lens, it's easy to lose perspective on just how small it is. On a desktop screen, you can make it the size of a dinner plate, spin it around, zoom in and out, and work on it all day long. And in my head, that's how big it can feel because that’s a human-friendly scale. But at the end of the day, it’s orders of magnitude smaller, and it still surprises me sometimes.
When Mojo Lens is released, what features are you most excited about using?
For me it's easy to fixate on one particular application like navigation or reading a speech, but it’s so much more. It also represents closing the loop, taking a product that existed in my head at one point and wearing it and using it. Mojo Lens is not just an iteration of something else that's already existed. It's a completely new thing. So you won’t know what it’s really like until you actually put the lens on—the experience it will produce will be different from anything we’ve ever seen. And I can’t wait to try it.