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For millions of people in the developing world, one thing stands between them and school or a job, and that is a good pair of glasses. Eye care is often a luxury in areas where health services are scarce. So, researchers and entrepreneurs are looking for breakthrough technologies to bring down the cost of glasses and eye exams.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that one idea starts with a smartphone.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: While glasses may be hard to come by in some places, smartphones are becoming more and more common. So, a group of researchers is trying to turn those phones into eye exam machines.

David Schafran is with Eyenetra, an MIT spinoff company developing a connection between eyes and cell phones.

DAVID SCHAFRAN: And our goal really is to empower millions and millions around the world, by bringing eye care to people's homes in a way that was never possible before.

ABRAMSON: Eyenetra has developed a $2 scope that health care workers can clip onto a smartphone. The patient stares through the eyepiece and follows colored lines that appear on the screen. Software installed on the phone translates your responses into a measurement of your refractive error - that's what an optometrist needs to make you a pair of glasses. .

Schafran says, it's just a question of leveraging the power of the smartphone.

SCHAFRAN: Well, the phone is actually doing everything. It's projecting the images, and it's also doing the calculations - that's where all the smarts are.

ABRAMSON: Eyenetra is testing these devices in clinics all over the world. The hope is that they will be accurate enough to change optometry, both in developing countries and maybe even in more affluent areas.

But there is skepticism. The classic eye exam starts with an automated reading by an expensive machine, which Eyenetra aims to replace. Next, your doctor follows up with a series of questions: Which lens helps you see better, number one or number two?

Kuldev Singh, a professor at Stanford University, says for the consumer to be happy, that second subjective test is crucial.

KULDEV SINGH: Science helps, but I don't think there's a substitute for actually checking to see if the patient is satisfied with the refraction that any automated device will find.

Eyenetra says relying on the automated exam can be just as accurate, and it makes the process cheaper and more accessible. But once you get your prescription, you still have to get the glasses made. Eyenetra's developers envision a network of providers that would lead from prescription to eyewear.

ABRAMSON: But in some places, patients are already building their own glasses. The Center for Vision in the Developing World is collaborating with Dow Corning on cheap glasses with lenses made of liquid silicon. Dow's James Stephenson says, initially, the glasses are equipped with a little pump that can adjust the shape of this liquid lens.

JAMES STEPHENSON: And the user basically looks through the glasses. They cover up one eye, and they literally turn the pump until the object comes into very clear vision.

ABRAMSON: The biggest downside with these glasses, initially called Adspecs, is that they're pretty clunky looking. The developers are working on a sleeker, more stylish version.

These are promising technologies. But those who work in the developing world caution that many patients don't know that they could see better, so they don't ask for help. And Stanford's Kuldev Singh says once you get a patient to come to a clinic, it's important to go beyond glasses.

SINGH: Certainly it's not a substitute for a complete exam that checks the eyes for potentially blinding diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration.

ABRAMSON: At the same time, a little health care is better than none at all, especially when the ability to see well can mean so much to a child trying to see a blackboard in school.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.



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