Think about what life would be like if you needed glasses and you didn’t have them. You would struggle to study in school, you would be hampered in your work, and much else besides.
So, consider the potential impact of distributing cheap glasses around the world. Between 700 million and three billion people need improved vision. If they were to get it, the bump in gross economic output might be between $200 billion and $1 trillion.
But how? According to Joshua Silver, a veteran atomic scientist from Oxford, England, the answer is a liquid-filled self-adjustable lens. His reason: self-adjustment avoids the need to train large numbers of optometrists, who add to the cost of delivery.
“I’ve shown that you can make your own eyeglasses by following a procedure without an eye test and without the intervention of a professional,” Silver says. “I would contend that’s the only way to bring vision correction to the very large numbers of people who need it over a reasonable timescale.”
Silver started working on his lenses back in 1985 and has been refining them ever since through a series of pilots and clinical trials. In essence, they’re two pieces of plastic filled with a silicone mixture. The more liquid you add, the fatter and more powerful they become. The wearer simply puts on the frames and twirls dials on each arm according to how clearly they can see. The syringes that deliver the mixture detach and are disposable.
Silver’s focus is on near-sighted teenagers. He estimates there are 100 million myopic students out there who would see better in school–and learn better–if they got cheap eyewear. His nonprofit, the Center for Vision in the Developing World, is now testing the latest version of the lenses in a pilot in China. If all goes well, he plans to start producing up to one million pairs a year.
The issue isn’t whether the technology works. An earlier study in 2007, with three groups of 500 teens, found that 95% achieved near-20/20 vision after they started wearing the lens. The problem is centered around cost and aesthetics. Silver needs to get the unit price down to the level at which someone will pay, whether it’s an international agency or charity, or individuals.
Before starting Child Vision, Silver was involved in a more commercial start-up that sold 30,000 pairs of the earlier version. They retailed for about $15 a time, which was almost certainly too expensive. He believes the new version will cost just a “few dollars” to produce, and perhaps have an end-price, after delivery, of $8.
Silver, who’s received $3 million in philanthropic funding from Dow Corning, hopes the World Bank or another international agency will help meet the cost through their education programs. “The eventual aim is to provide [the glasses] free as an aid to education,” he says.
That still leaves the aesthetics problem. Some may find the bulky frames hip, but those who do are probably not the teens in Africa who actually need to wear them. Silver says the style imperfections can be ironed out. The latest versions look more like normal glasses, he says (not something only a senior professor might wear).
We’ll see whether Silver can finally follow through on the invention he first made 30 years ago and actually get significantly numbers of glasses into the field. At $8 a pop, he could give corrected vision to three billion people for about $24 billion. That doesn’t seem like a lot to spend for economic output many times that.