Self-Adjusting Eyeglasses For The Poor

NPR's Scott Simon speaks with retired Oxford University professor Joshua Silver, who has developed inexpensive self-adjusting eyeglasses for use in underdeveloped countries.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Joshua Silver wants to help the world to see. The retired Oxford University physics professor has developed low cost, self-adjusting eyewear that he wants to make widely available to poor people in developing countries. The U.S. military has bought 20,000 pairs to give away to people in Africa and Eastern Europe. Dr. Silver hopes to get a million pairs of his glasses out in the next year. Dr. Silver joins us from the studios of the BBC in Oxford, England. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. JOSHUA SILVER (Director, Research at the Center for Vision and the Developing World): You're welcome.

SIMON: With respect for a marvelous invention, these - and I'm just - I've just seen them, I must say, on your face in newspaper photos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Looks like something Woody Allen might wear.

Dr. SILVER: Well, the initial device, which is now in use in about 15 countries, is a little bit clunky, but it does work.

SIMON: How do you make glasses that adjust themselves or that you can adjust?

Dr. SILVER: There are actually several technologies, but the particular one I chose is a fluid-filled chamber which is bounded by thin elastic membranes, and it's - you pump fluid in or out of that chamber, and as you do that, the curvature of the surfaces of the chamber change, and then you have effectively a mimic of the eye lens, a variable power lens.

SIMON: So people put on these glasses and they adjust them to where they can begin to read, begin to thread a needle, begin to see traffic signs?

Dr. SILVER: Absolutely.

SIMON: How much do they cost?

Dr. SILVER: Currently they cost just a little over $19. So, you want to deliver eyewear to - we estimate that there's about 3 billion people in the world who need corrective eyewear today. Now, if you want to tackle that problem and you want to bring them corrective eyewear, you've actually got to be able to make a device at very low cost. And so, my long-term goal is to be able to make a device for around a dollar.

SIMON: Have you had offers to sell this technology commercially on a much greater scale?

Dr. SILVER: There are always offers from the industry, as it were, to take the device and to take it further. But I've always been somewhat concerned that my interest may not be absolutely in line with the interest of the industry because I actually want to take this technology and apply it to poor people. But yeah, there have been offers, but there's a huge challenge now to actually scale up for where we are in order to get it to those very large number of people. And that's being - that's under discussion now.

SIMON: To make many more pairs of glasses?

Dr. SILVER: Absolutely, yeah, at lower cost.

SIMON: Dr. Silver, thanks so much.

Dr. SILVER: You're welcome. Thank you.

SIMON: Joshua Silver, director of Research at the Center for Vision and the Developing World. This is NPR News.

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