Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Cheap, user-tunable eyeglasses

As someone who wears glasses, I was struck by this report that an Oxford physicist has developed eyeglasses that can be “‘tuned’ by the wearer to correct his or her own vision.” As the Guardian explains,

[Josh] Silver has devised a pair of glasses which rely on the principle that the fatter a lens the more powerful it becomes. Inside the device’s tough plastic lenses are two clear circular sacs filled with fluid, each of which is connected to a small syringe attached to either arm of the spectacles.

The wearer adjusts a dial on the syringe to add or reduce amount of fluid in the membrane, thus changing the power of the lens. When the wearer is happy with the strength of each lens the membrane is sealed by twisting a small screw, and the syringes removed. The principle is so simple, the team has discovered, that with very little guidance people are perfectly capable of creating glasses to their own prescription.

Silver calls his flash of insight a “tremendous glimpse of the obvious” – namely that opticians weren’t necessary to provide glasses. This is a crucial factor in the developing world where trained specialists are desperately in demand: in Britain there is one optometrist for every 4,500 people, in sub-Saharan Africa the ratio is 1:1,000,000.

This is one of those small things that could have very big consequences, both directly and indirectly. The development of relatively inexpensive eyeglasses centuries ago, Annales historians argued decades ago, helped reorient European consciousness away from smell and touch, and toward sight. (That this paralleled the start of the Scientific Revolution was no accident: good vision is a prerequisite for good observation.) Closer to home, cheap eyewear has economic benefits that are so obvious– right in front of our noses, as it were– that those of us who live in places with relatively affordable eyewear easily miss them.

The implications of bringing glasses within the reach of poor communities are enormous, says the scientist. Literacy rates improve hugely, fishermen are able to mend their nets, women to weave clothing. During an early field trial, funded by the British government, in Ghana, Silver met a man called Henry Adjei-Mensah, 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.”

1 Comment

  1. Interestingly enough, I met with these guys a couple of years ago with a view to using this invention as an empirical study for my thesis. It is a fascinating project and even more so when you actually try on the glasses!

    Merry Christmas.

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