Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Self-Adjusting Eyeglasses

I still remember the day my dad took me down to get my first pair of glasses. I was 6 years old, and had no idea why I was at the optician's. That is, until I put the glasses on.

Seeing life come into focus for the first time was for me a bit like Dorothy stepping out of a black and white Kansas into all the colors of Oz. I kept putting my glasses on and off for quite a while, just to convince myself that this new vision was really real.

I suppose it's therefore a bit ironic that I ended up in radiology, shunning color to work in a world that's All-Gray, All-The-Time.

But I digress.

Glasses were a miracle to me. I could now see the blackboards at school. I could see snow-capped peaks off in the distance. Heck, I could even see the frakking house across the street!

Decades of wearing corrective lenses have since led me to take this miracle for granted. I'm not used to waiting more than a few days for an optometry appointment. If LensCrafters doesn't have the color of frames I want or takes more than an hour to make my new prescription, I get cranky.

It was, therefore good for my soul to read about physicist Joshua Silver, and his plan to bring glasses to the planet's poorest people. It was also quite humbling to learn that one of the biggest barriers to universal eye correction has been the medical profession itself.

Don't get me wrong -- doctors are not trying to keep glasses away from people who need them. The problem is that most people have to go to an eye specialist with expensive optical gear before they can get their glasses. This isn't so bad in a country where every mall has at least one optician. But it sucks somewhat more if you live in sub-sahelian Africa, where there's only one optometrist per million people.

This is where Joshua Silver comes in. His brilliant 1985 epiphany: what if you could adjust your own glasses? What if you didn't need expensive optical gear or a specialist? What if these glasses could be made cheaply?

After 2 decades of work, he now thinks he has the answer: self-adjusting glasses that are simple enough for almost anyone to use. The basic concept: the thicker the lens, the greater the correction. Using this idea, he has created glasses with tough plastic lenses containing inner sacs of clear fluid. A wearer can adjust the amount of fluid in these sacs by turning a dial on a syringe until their vision is just right.

The current model of these glasses is like Henry Ford's model A -- it comes in just one model and just one color: black. So far, Silver has distributed 30,000 of these goggle-like glasses to people in over 15 countries. However, he's just getting started. His Secret Master Plan: get these glasses to everyone on the planet who needs them, which could be up to half of all living humans. I must say that the mental image of 3 billion people all wearing Woody Allen glasses makes me a bit dizzy.

In a recent Guardian article on Silver's invention, we hear the story of a tailor from Ghana,
whose sight had deteriorated with age, as all human sight does, and who had been forced to retire as a tailor because he could no longer see to thread the needle of his sewing machine. "So he retires. He was about 35. He could have worked for at least another 20 years. We put these specs on him, and he smiled, and threaded his needle, and sped up with this sewing machine. He can work now. He can see."
For me, stories like this help to neutralize a lot of the depressing crap on the news these days. My soul would smile even more if Adaptive Eyecare, Dr. Silver's research group, had a PayPal button on their website. I'd love to donate a small bag of cash to this excellent work.

4 comments:

zed said...

Its nice to hear all this good work but question...wouldn't the thought of having sight restored detract from the cause of having bad sight...wouldn't these people shy away from proper eye examinations?

Josh said...

This is by far the coolest pair of glasses I have seen. I'm searching online to find where I can buy a pair, but I don't know where to look. Will this be sold to the American public?

Josh said...

Can I buy a pair of these glasses?

The Samurai Radiologist said...

@ Josh: I don't have details on ordering. However, you can check out the VDW website for more details at:

http://www.vdw.ox.ac.uk/

I see that they now have a donation button on their site.