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Adlens imagines cheap glasses for world’s needy

Couples product line with bid to provide eyewear in developing nations

The Alvarez: Each eyepiece contains a pair of lenses, one of them movable. Turning a knob brings objects into focus.

JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF

The Alvarez: Each eyepiece contains a pair of lenses, one of them movable. Turning a knob brings objects into focus.

Many Americans with poor vision can ill afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a spare pair of eyeglasses. In developing countries such as Rwanda, millions can’t afford glasses at all.

Adlens, a British company that recently opened its US headquarters in Boston, thinks it has a solution to both problems. Adlens makes inexpensive plastic glasses that a user can adjust to the correct focus simply by turning a knob.

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It’s also selling a new, more costly line of adjustable glasses, modeled after the small, rounded eyewear made famous by former Beatle John Lennon. And next year it will enter the mainstream market with an adjustable version of its lenses that will allow people to see clearly — either over distance or up close — by turning a dial.

Adlens plans to donate a pair of its glasses to someone in Rwanda every time it makes a sale.

Focuss: New technology was created in an attempt to improve prescription progressive lens.

Focuss: New technology was created in an attempt to improve prescription progressive lens.

Graeme MacKenzie, director of industry affairs, said his company’s donations to the Vision for a Nation program are not just a marketing gimmick. “That’s why the whole company was founded,” MacKenzie said.

Vision for a Nation was started by Adlens cofounder James Chen to bring vision-correcting glasses to people in developing nations. They started in Rwanda because it has a relatively good health care infrastructure, with a clinic in nearly every community, and are now looking to expand to other countries.

But Adlens’s global ambitions may trip on red tape, as the sale of eyewear is closely regulated by governments. Massachusetts officials said businesses generally need a license to sell corrective eyeglasses in the state, and customers must have a prescription from an optometrist or physician to buy them.

Bruce Moore, professor of pediatric optometry at New England College of Optometry, said selling corrective eyewear without a prescription “will fly in the face of legality in the 50 states and the 10 Canadian provinces.”

But MacKenzie said Adlens has not received any complaints from state regulators and noted the company does not sell its glasses as substitutes for traditional glasses. A disclaimer on its website urges buyers to get regular eye exams from a physician or optometrist.

Founded in 2005, Adlens has sold about 100,000 user-adjustable eyeglasses in the United States through the Internet, TV advertising, and over the counter at Home Depot, at prices from $20 to $40.

The idea of user-adjustable eyeglasses is far from new. A French physician built a prototype in 1880, but it couldn’t be manufactured using the technology available at the time.

Adlens cofounder Joshua Silver, a retired Oxford University physics professor, had better luck a century later. Silver worked on the idea in his spare time, hoping to develop cheap corrective glasses for poor people around the world; making it a paying business came later.

John Lennon: Each eyepiece includes a liquid-filled membrane laminated between two layers of hard plastic. Turning a knob pressurizes the liquid, adjusting the focus of the lens.

JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF

John Lennon: Each eyepiece includes a liquid-filled membrane laminated between two layers of hard plastic. Turning a knob pressurizes the liquid, adjusting the focus of the lens.

Adlens makes two types of user-adjustable eyeglasses. The cheaper version uses “Alvarez lens” technology, named for its inventor, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez.

With an Alvarez system, each eyepiece contains a pair of lenses, one of them movable. Turning a knob shifts the movable lens left or right, gradually bringing objects into focus. The left and right eyepieces can be separately adjusted for the right amount of vision correction.

The John Lennon line uses a different technology developed by Silver. The glasses feature perfectly round Harry Potter-ish lenses. Each includes a liquid-filled membrane laminated between two layers of hard plastic. Turning a knob pressurizes the liquid and flexes the lens, adjusting its focus.

Once the lenses are correctly tuned, the user breaks off the knobs, locking the lenses in focus.

The John Lennon line costs between $135 and $168 at the Adlens website and less on sites such as Amazon.com.

For every purchase, Adlens will donate another pair to Vision for a Nation.

Rather than simply hand out eyewear, Vision for a Nation will provide glasses to health care workers who’ll administer simple eye tests to each recipient. The glasses won’t be free; recipients will pay about $1 per pair, with the money going to support the health clinic.

As for the John Lennon glasses, Adlens chief executive Michael C. Ferrara needed the permission of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono; it proved to be an easy sell after she was told about the plan to donate glasses.

“She said, ‘John would love this,’ ” Ferrara said. “She was just delighted that we treated everything with respect. It fit into her vision of what the man would like.”

Adlens isn’t focused solely on over-the-counter eyewear. It’s struck up an alliance with the optometry chain LensCrafters to sell Focuss, a new kind of prescription glasses. Focuss lenses are supposed to improve on progressive lenses, used by people who have trouble reading fine print as they get older. Focuss uses a fluid-based system similar to the one in the John Lennon glasses.

A progressive lens offers greater magnification at the bottom of the lens, so it acts like an old-fashioned bifocal reading lens. But many people find progressive lenses ineffective and hard to use. A Focuss progressive lens will be adjustable, so the user can turn the magnification setting up or down. Focuss glasses are set to be available nest year at LensCrafters stores, at prices from $500 to $800.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this story misattributed comments about a meeting with Yoko Ono, wife of the late John Lennon, to Graeme MacKenzie. The comments were made by Adlens chief executive Michael C. Ferrara. In addition, because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, the story misstated which glasses would be donated to people in Rwanda. They will not be the company’s John Lennon glasses, but a less expensive model.

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