Vision Quest: Liquid Lenses Adjust to Eyesight

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For myopic people like myself, the hardest thing about getting a pair of glasses tends to be picking out a flattering style in a decent price range. But millions of people in developing areas can't afford an exam, much less kickin' frames. Now, low-tech innovations are starting to bring clearer vision.

Tech used by the UK-based Center for Vision in the Developing World looks so helpful that I wouldn't mind trying it out. For the 20/20 sighted among you, an exam stateside usually involves staring at an eye chart through a large, multi-lensed instrument called a phoropter. In Liberia, an exam can be done with special adaptive eyewear.

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In a collaboration with Dow Corning, the vision center is using special inexpensive glasses called Adspecs that have fluid-filled lenses. As the Center explains on its site, the lens contains two flexible membranes and the refractive power is adjusted when the wearer sends fluid into or out of the central lens reservoir using a small pump on the side of the frame.

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Adspecs, which have been around for a little while, do have a drawback. As NPR's Larry Abramson pointed out on All Things Considered, the glasses are still fairly clunky so they'll need to be streamlined. When someone in a developing area can see better, it makes an enormous impact on the ability to attend school and work.

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Another promising tech that NPR highlighted comes from the MIT Media Lab spinoff EyeNetra. They make a $2 scope attachment for a smart phone that works with phone applications to perform an eye exam in about two minutes. When someone looks through the scope, the app measures the refractive error so it's easy to figure out which glasses are needed.

One challenge that groups tackling eye care have uncovered is that many patients in developing areas don't realize that they have trouble seeing, and therefore never ask for help. Maybe if these populations have widespread access to liquid-filled lenses and scope-phones, more people will want to find out. Then we can beat blurriness.

Photo: A Liberian man adjusts a liquid silicon lens to his vision. Credit: Centre for Vision in the Developing World.

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