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A Cheaper Pair Of Glasses Brings Cheaper, Better Vision To The Developing World

As many as 700 million people around the world currently live their lives in a day-to-day blur.

Imagine what your life would be like if you needed glasses but couldn’t afford a pair. You would struggle to work, look after your family, and do all kinds of things glasses-wearers take for granted.

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This is the fate suffered by up to 700 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. And various social initiatives, such as VisionSpring and the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, have been trying to help.

The latest idea comes from Evan Madill and Nathan Brajer, two graduates from Washington University in St. Louis. Their approach involves breaking down each pair of glasses into three components–lens, lens holder and wire to hold everything together–to create a design that is flexible and highly portable.

“We spent quite a bit of time doing research and kicking different ideas around,” Madill says. “Eventually, we decided that interchangeable lenses would be the best way of providing some adjustability without driving up costs.”

See Brajer demonstrate the kit below:

With help from their university, Madill and Brajer developed a prototype and carried out field-testing in Ghana. They’ve since formed a company, ViFlex, to develop the idea and have deferred medical school to give their baby a chance to grow.

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As with the other social-glasses projects, cost is all important. Madill says prototype versions currently come in at $1.30. The production target is $4–about the price VisionSpring charges for ready-made pairs. “Our goal is to provide many of the advantages of adjustable glasses at about the same price as the off-the-shelf readers that VisionSpring and others offer,” he says.

Aesthetics may be an issue. Madill admits some early wearers have complained the glasses were “designed for charity” and didn’t look modern enough. But he thinks that can be addressed in future versions. “We have recruited several art and human-centered design students to explore how we can create the appearance of designer glasses without raising costs,” he says.

“The main constraint is raising money,” Madill adds. “Distribution is hard [because] we don’t have the expertise to set up sustainable networks in multiple countries. We are currently working through smaller NGOs, but we will need to scale up this process.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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