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Google got lots of attention Thursday with the news that it’s testing a “smart contact lens” that can monitor glucose — a breakthrough with the potential to change the lives of millions of people with diabetes by giving them a new, high-tech way of keeping tabs on their blood-sugar levels.

Most people reading the official blog post would get the impression that this project was born inside Google. But the history is actually more complicated than that.

The idea actually originated at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the Google project co-founders named in Thursday’s post, researchers Babak Parviz and Brian Otis, worked on the electrical engineering faculty before joining Google’s advanced research lab.

Microsoft file photo, 2011: Microsoft researcher Desney Tan and Andy Lingley, then a PhD candidate at the UW, working on an earlier version of the contact lens.

And that earlier incarnation of the project, funded by the National Science Foundation, received support and collaboration from none other than Microsoft, as announced in this blog post from the Redmond company two years ago (and noted by a reader on our earlier post about the Google project).

The situation is fascinating on a number of levels. It shows Google’s uncanny ability to generate buzz — making headlines by announcing essentially the same thing that Microsoft announced two years ago. It may also reinforce the notion that Microsoft as a company isn’t doing enough to seize new opportunities and capitalize on the work of its research group.

We’ve contacted Microsoft to see if it has anything to say about Google’s announcement. (See update below.)

In reality, the idea of measuring glucose via sensor on a contact lens has been around for many years. However, Google points out that it has broken new ground in the process of creating a working prototype, now being tested in clinical studies.

A Google spokesperson tells us that the smart contact lens technology now being tested by the company was actually built from scratch. In developing the current prototype, the company needed to figure out a way to use industry-standard materials to ensure that the lenses could actually be worn. Google also needed to make sure that the sensor could operate for multiple hours a day, and that the wireless chip could be built with off-the-shelf components.

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska notes that the original work on glucose-sensing contact lenses was done at the UW by a graduate student, Claire Yao, who also now works at Google. Yao built the original prototype in the UW’s Washington Nanofabrication Facility.

One interesting question is whether Google’s work on smart contact lenses could contribute to future versions of its Google Glass augmented-reality technology. A Seattle-area company, Innovega, is using contact lenses to enable an immersive augmented reality experience in combination with glasses. Parviz, one of the Google smart contact lens project co-founders, is also one of the leaders of the Glass project.

In a Washington Post article earlier today, the other Google contact lens project co-founder, Otis, explained why the former UW researchers took their work to the Google[x] lab. “You can take it to a certain level in an academic setting, but at Google we were given the latitude to invest in this project,” he said.

In many ways, all of this is still academic. The Washington Post notes that the glucose-detecting contacts aren’t expected to be available to consumers for at least five years.

One challenge is that the simple pin prick — as painful as it can be — has traditionally proven more reliable in detecting glucose than high-tech, non-invasive alternatives. But for the sake of millions of diabetics, here’s hoping Google (or Microsoft or someone else) can finally bring this contact lens idea to market.

Update, Friday afternoon: Desney Tan, the Microsoft researcher who worked on the project, addressed the topic in a blog post this afternoon. He writes, in part …

What’s occurred here is a great example of why we and others must continue to invest in basic research, pushing the boundaries of science and technology in an effort to improve the lives of as many people as possible. Most of the time here at Microsoft, we do this in partnership with our business group colleagues, who can take direct advantage of our work and deliver it directly to our customers. But there are other instances where we do this through partners, and sometimes even through competitors. Our open research and deeply collaborative model allows us to work with the best academic and industrial researchers around the world, and we will continue to do so as we certainly believe in the philosophy that “we” is smarter than “me.” This open approach to working with and through others has consistently delivered outsized rewards for Microsoft and for the world at large.

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