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A Smartphone App for Eye Exams in Developing Countries

Netra is a clip-on eyepiece that works with software downloaded to a smartphone
Netra is a clip-on eyepiece that works with software downloaded to a smartphone

This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

More than two hundred eighty million people around the world have vision problems or are blind. The World Health Organization says nine out of ten of them live in developing countries. And eighty percent of the problems can be prevented or cured.

Uncorrected cases of near-sightedness, far-sightedness and astigmatism are the leading cause of vision problems. These are called refractive errors. They often go untreated in countries with limited health care systems.

But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new way to identify eye disorders with a smartphone. They call it Netra, which means eye in Sanskrit but stands for Near Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment.

A person downloads software to a phone and attaches a plastic eyepiece over the screen. The user looks into the eyepiece and uses the buttons on the phone to move two lines until they appear as one.

The person's vision problem is identified by the number of clicks required to line up the images. The results can be sent to an eye doctor to make glasses.

The cost is two dollars and the researchers say the results are as good as a traditional eye exam. The phone app is still being tested and is not yet available.

But last month the researchers from the MIT Media Lab won first prize in the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project. They will receive three hundred thousand dollars over three years to continue their research.

June Sugiyama is director of the Vodaphone Americas Foundation. She says the competition involved nearly one hundred projects that could help solve important problems.

JUNE SUGIYAMA: "These creative methods that people have come up with by using wireless technology will be able to be accessed by millions of people, whereas other technology using electricity and landlines would not have been that accessible."

Second place went to Smart Diaphragm, a wireless system for women with high-risk pregnancies. It warns if there are signs that the baby could be born early unless doctors intervene.

And third place went to a solar-powered wireless system designed for tuberculosis treatment programs in developing countries. CoolComply measures the temperature of medicine and records the amount used. June Sugiyama says the information is sent to local health care workers supervising patient treatment.

JUNE SUGIYAMA: "Especially TB medication needs to be kept in a certain temperature. And as you know in developing countries refrigerators aren’t that accessible. So this kind of technology is perfect for that kind of arena."

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. I'm Steve Ember.