January 12, 2009 The ability to see clearly is something we take for granted in the western world - somewhere between 45-50% of the US/European population wear some form of corrective eyeglasses. Vision problems are no less common in developing countries, but custom eyewear is just too expensive for the vast majority of sufferers. The World Health Organization estimates that "1 billion people worldwide need, but do not have access to, vision correction." Retired physics Professor Joshua Silver has put a plan in motion to redress this balance with the invention of a very cheap set of spectacles that are quickly and easily adjustable to correct long- and short-sightedness. With 30,000 pairs already distributed, Silver's target is no less than to produce and distribute one billion pairs of these silicone-oil wonders throughout the developing world, helping older people get back to work and radically changing lives in the process.

Silver's 'Adaptive Eyecare' spectacles work in a very simple fashion that mimics the operation of the human eye's own focusing apparatus. The lenses are filled with a clear silicone oil, and small syringes are attached to each arm. Using a small dial, the wearer injects or removes oil from the silicone lens, altering its curvature and effectively allowing a range of adjustment between -6 and +6 Dioptres - meaning that they can be perfectly adjusted to suit over 90% of wearers' needs. Once the glasses are set, the mini-syringes are removed and the glasses are ready for use - the optical quality is similar to that of the normal human eye.

Fashion glasses these are not - in fact, they're fairly clunky to look at, but while Silver admits the design could be improved, he's far more concerned with bringing the price down from an already astonishing USD$19 so that more units can be produced and sent to where they're most needed.

Major organizations like the US Defence Department, World Bank and British government have got behind Silver's project, either purchasing glasses in bulk for distribution around the world, or contributing directly to the project. With 30,000 pairs already in circulation, Silver has hugely changed at least that number of lives - particularly in cases where deteriorating vision has prevented people from working and supporting their families. But this is a drop in the ocean in Silver's estimation. His retirement will be spent trying to fine-tune the construction and distribution of the adaptive glasses, with the aim of first raising production to a million pairs a year, and next to get the necessary one billion pairs out to where they're needed by 2020.

In terms of direct and indirect effects, this may grow to be one of the world's most effective and important philanthropic ventures - we wish Professor Silver and his thousands of customers all the best.

Loz Blain

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