The keystone of the optical business isn’t the frame, the lens, or the contact lens. It’s the examination of the patient’s eyes in order to determine refractive error and thereby generate a prescription for vision correction.
The Rx, as we all know, is where it begins and ends. Largely, it is the province of optometrists who have closely guarded this particular procedure, notwithstanding attempts over the last few decades by opticians and technicians, to effectively become “refractionists.” Surprisingly, this all-important procedure is conducted using technology that is nearly a century old. And despite several innovations that create newer, more precise technology for the chore-which could potentially result in far more accurate prescriptions-the phoropter is still the tool the optometrist wields in the quest for corrected vision.
Now the refraction is making its way in the digital world. Several companies are now touting new technologies that can turn just about anyone with a computer or a smartphone into a refractionist.
The older of the two is called EyeNetra. This technology combines a smartphone app with an inexpensive lens attachment to create a mobile refraction device. According to one of its founders, David Schafran, EyeNetra is a simple technology that works much as an autorefractor does, providing, in his words, “a highly accurate prescription that allows the patient to then access eyewear.” EyeNetra is targeting the developing world where traditional vision care is hard to come by. “With this simple-to-use application, a person could have a business going from community to community in India, for example, providing eye exams,” he says.
The other newsmaker in this space is Opternative, an online refractive technology that provides a valid prescription in about 10 minutes. Started by Aaron Dallek and Steven Lee, Opternative differs from EyeNetra in that the company plans to license the product to industry professionals, and word is that they’ll be in the market within the next few months. Opternative has already captured the imagination of investors, enabling Dallek and Lee to raise $1 million in seed money this past winter.
Of course, organized optometry has already lodged its protests, validly claiming that do-it-yourself refractions will cause patients to skip eye exams altogether and, thus, bypass the truly significant, health-related elements of the process, such as testing for glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other diseases.
The outcome here remains to be seen. But it is certain that, as digital optical retailing changed the way patients looked at buying glasses, so too will digital refraction change their view of the process.
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