Approximately, 50% of the world’s population requires prescription lenses and cannot afford them. Josh Silver’s dream is to put glasses on the faces of 1 billion of the world’s neediest, most visually-impaired people. How does a dream like this start? Read on.
It was during a conversation in 1985 when Josh Silver, a professor of physics at Oxford University, and a colleague were discussing optical lenses that Silver was hit by an epiphany. The discussion had been about whether eyeglasses could produced that could be adjusted without the need for expensive equipment and/or specialist assistance.
In other words, was it possible to create glasses that could be adjusted by the wearer – do-it-yourself prescription eyewear?
It is now nearly a quarter of a century later and the dream has almost been realized. The technology has been discovered and the prototypes work; the final step being to distribute these glasses to 1 billion of the world’s most deserving. Silver wants to reach his distribution goal by 2020.
While 30,000 pairs of his spectacles have already been distributed in 15 countries, Silver thinks of this as small potatoes. Within the next year, Silver (who has since retired) and his team plan a trial run in India where they hope to distribute 1 million pairs of glasses. Future goals include the annual distribution of 100 million pairs of glasses.
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.
A Zulu man wearing adaptive glasses. Photograph: Michael Lewis Photo courtesy: Guardian
This is technology that could literally change the lives of 50% of the world’s population. In the UK optometrists are 1:4,500 people while in sub-Saharan Africa the ratio is 1:1,000,000.
The implications are enormous…literacy rates will improve, fishermen will be able to mend their nets, women will be able to weave clothing, children will be able to properly develop motor skills, and…
I remember my first pair of glasses. By the time I saw an optometrist my vision was so poor, the optometrist told my mother that it would be like my first being able to see leaves on a tree. The first thing I saw when I put on my glasses was my father’s face and I was horrified. I had always thought that men’s facial skin was just like a women’s. I had never been able to see any difference.
This was the first time I had ever seen a man’s face and been able to see the differences. I thought my father was hideously pox-marked; and, I felt sorry for my mother having to kiss him. What I was actually seeing was the larger pores of his facial hair; but, because I had never seen them before, they looked exaggeratedly large.
During an early field trial, funded by the British government, in Ghana, Silver met a man called Henry Adjei-Mensah. This man had been forced to give up his livelihood as a tailor because his eyesight had deteriorated to point that he could no longer see well enough 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."
"The reaction is universal," says Major Kevin White, formerly of the US military's humanitarian programme, who organised the distribution of thousands of pairs around the world after discovering Silver's glasses on Google. "People put them on, and smile. They all say, 'Look, I can read those tiny little letters.'"
Josh Silver at the TED conference. Be prepared to just love this man. The ability to change the lives of 50% of the world's population; and, the man is humility itself.