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Making Eye Exams Affordable with a Smartphone Attachment

By Wesley Fenlon

Which would you rather pay for: a cheap smartphone attachment, or an expensive trip to the optometrist?

Almost no one enjoys going to the doctor. While not quite as universally feared and reviled as a trip to the dentist, a trip to the doctor is still often unpleasant. There's waiting in a clinical check-up room, the cool of the stethoscope, the awkward admission that we may not have been exercising much lately. And then there's the cost. Cost, above all, may be what drives us to self-diagnose; it's also the one piece of the medical industry that outsiders may be able to exploit as a weakness.

A startup called EyeNetra is the perfect example. With a smartphone app and an add-on device that can be built for a few dollars, EyeNetra thinks it can read our eyeballs and give us an eyeglass prescription. The professional equivalent that eye care professionals use costs $5000, and Technology Review writes that the eye care market is currently a $75 billion annual industry. Every year millions of people pay their optometrists hundreds of dollars to check their eyes and update their prescriptions. What if that only cost a few bucks?

"The device, called the Netra-G, is based on some clever optics and software[EyeNetra's Vitor] Pamplona came up with—a way to measure the refractive error of the eye using a smartphone screen and an inexpensive pair of plastic binoculars," writes Technology Review. "Pamplona invented the Netra while studying in an MIT lab specializing in computational photography...The prototype device he developed to measure how well your eye focuses light consists of a viewer that a user places against a smartphone screen. Spinning a dial yourself, you align green and red lines. From the difference between what you see and the actual location of the lines, an app calculates the focusing error of your eyes. It’s like a thermometer for vision."

Industry-changing inventions like EyeNetra are bound to stir up some controversy as they clash with established procedures. Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla, who has put $2 million into EyeNetra, last year accused doctors of performing "witchcraft" and claimed most of their work could be done by machines. Others argue that doctors study a larger picture of health, and that EyeNetra wouldn't necessarily fill the same role as visiting an optometrist.

When it comes down to a simple examination, however, EyeNetra may get the job done, and that's going to create tension within the structure of the healthcare system. For now, EyeNetra is targeting India, but sooner or later self-diagnosis smartphone attachments are going to clash with regulations in the United States. With billions of dollars involved, you know that's going to be a nasty fight.