3D Printer Brings Vision to the Poor

February 2, 2007 · Posted in abundance, economics, innovation, Intellectual Property, prediction, sharing 

The same week that I found all the articles on 3D printers I found an amazing example that could dramatically improve life for billions of people in developing countries who cannot access, nor afford, prescription glasses.

Last weekend I went to get a new optical prescription so I could buy new contacts. The technician used fully automatic devices to check me for glaucoma and calculated my prescription. I had experienced the glaucoma device but the prescription device was new to me. I instantly knew how it worked just from seeing it. The machine reflects a pattern off your eye then adjusts lenses in the device until the reflected pattern matches the original. Incredibly, quick easy and cheap!

My mind raced through all the potential innovations stemming from this device. I came up with a long list which I’ll get to in a moment. What I am more excited about is an extremely innovative application of this same technique. In 2002 a student at MIT used a similar technique as part of a system to make glasses for the poor. This was exactly what I had thought of. This innovation went from an idea in 2002 to commercial usable device in 2006. That is amazing.

One of the reasons the idea was developed in such a short time was the use of a 3D printer to create a prototype. But probably even more important was it solved a previously impossible problem and opened up a gigantic market. There are 1 billion people who need inexpensive glasses. Market for low cost glasses

There are two obstacles to providing eye glasses to people in developing countries. The first is determining their prescription and the second is providing them with affordable glasses. Poor people don’t have access to eye doctors. Sending doctors around to people spread out in rural areas like Africa isn’t feasible and in densely populated areas such as India there are just too many people for the limited number of eye doctors.

The second obstacle is glasses require mass customization. Every person has their own prescription and frame combination. Even if you limited frame styles you still need to have several sizes to fit children and adults. It would be too expensive to send prescriptions out to a lab then ship to the patient. And it’s not practical to carry around every combination of lenses and frames to assemble the many combinations to fit everyone.

Saul Griffith solved both obstacles with novel but cheap technology. To solve the problem of not enough doctors to issue prescriptions, he made a fully automated device that calculates the prescription. So anyone can take this inexpensive device to patients and generate prescriptions without the need of a doctor.

The second obstacle both used a 3D printer to make the prototype and 3D printer techniques to make the glasses. One way technique for 3D printing is to use a plastic that hardens when infrared light is shined on it. Saul made a device that formed the lenses from that type of plastic using nothing more than a hand drawn syringe to create a vacuum to bend a mold. Very simple and cheap! Now all that is needed to make the lenses are the raw liquid plastic and the special mold.

Glasses in 10 minutes for $10 anywhere in the world completely changes the existing economies and helps a ton of people. But also sets the stage for many new innovations. More links to Saul Griffith: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel5/6/29742/01353789.pdf?arnumber=1353789

When I saw the automatic prescription device one of the first ideas I had was miniaturizing the technology and making lenses that automatically adjusted for the wearer. A quick search of Google and I found someone was already working on automatic glasses. Automatic glasses

This shows convergence of technology. As information technologies increase creating new technologies becomes easier. 3D printer technology makes creating new devices easier. All these new tools make the pace of innovation increase. This means it’s increasingly more important to use a Predictive Innovation System. It will help you find new ideas soon enough for you to have time to work on new things before the market moves past that idea.

Here are some of the possible innovations stemming from the automatic lens idea:

  1. Link the automatic prescription device to automatically form the lenses
  2. Use a 3D printer to make the frames on the spot.
  3. Self serve prescription eyeglass vending machines. Perhaps combine this with other diagnostic tools as well for custom medical diagnosis & treatment on demand.
  4. Instead of using the LCD technology for the automatic lenses, use Saul Griffith’s vacuum
    technology. A manual version already exists.
  5. Use the automatic eyeglasses as exercise devices for eyes to naturally correct vision.
  6. Use another type of automatic eyeglasses to electrically stimulate the eye muscles to see properly or possibly build the strength to be cured.
  7. Use the automatic glasses to determine if a person is alert and focusing.
  8. Use the automatic glasses technology as an input device for computers or video games.
  9. Use the automatic glasses technology to as a hands free device or to help disabled people.
  10. Selectively focus on potential threats to draw attention as a safety device for drivers or security personnel.
  11. Use selectively focus as a communications tool to show another person what you are looking at. Ex: pilots, surgeons, soldiers, fire fighters.