"Nobody took the effort to make it into a workable device," says Peter Egbert, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, who knows about Silver through his own work providing eye care in Ghana through Unite for Sight, a nonprofit that distributes traditional eyeglasses.
Silver and a host of others involved in aid programs for developing countries have taken a particular interest in whether children can also learn to use the glasses. At least 180 million children could use glasses to help with their schoolwork, according to a report from the Child Vision Conference in Oxford in 2007. The hope is that more kids who finish school and go on to good jobs will help boost economies, especially in poorer nations. In order for that to happen, the conference concluded that "the applications of techniques and technology now available needs to be scaled up," in its printed declaration.
Aside from helping those in developing countries, these glasses are also being used by some in the U.S., Silver says. Two U.S. women, in particular, have been using the glasses—with the tuning devices still attached—to correct their vision after a faulty corneal surgery about a decade ago that has left both with a condition in which their prescription can swing one way or the other within the space of about an hour.
Getting the price of the glasses down to $1 per pair will take some effort, however: Silver's company (which he calls "an ordinary company that's never made a profit") now sells its adaptive specs for $19 per pair to organizations—including the U.S. government and the Ghana Education Ministry—that have distributed 30,000 of these worldwide. But in a conversation with Silver, he wouldn't say how he plans to lower costs to the $1 that was recommended to him by a WHO employee. But, he says, the key will be making technology cheaper and cranking up the volume. "It's difficult," he says, "but we believe we will do it."
Even if the costs come down, however, Egbert doesn't see adjustable glasses as a long-term solution for those in the developing world. "I think it's a clever idea," he says. However, "it's kind of a stopgap measure until the economy comes up and they can get the glasses and frames made for the individual patient." Based on his own experience in Ghana, Egbert has noticed that people really do care about how the glasses and frames will look. "My sense is that they just look so klutzy that that's a disadvantage," he adds.
Silver doesn't discount the importance of fashion and aesthetics, and he anticipates coming out with new, less Potteresque designs in the future to make the useful technology more widely appealing—beyond its function. Despite the design, production and distribution hurdles, Silver is committed: "When I realized I was working on a technology that should have an application for half the world, I began to take it very seriously."