Warby Parker has already made it easy to buy glasses online and at a lower price than traditional retailers. But people still need to see a doctor to get their prescription. With one startup’s plan to offer low-cost online eye exams, it could soon be easy to get new glasses right from home without ever spending a minute in a waiting room.
Opternative, a Chicago-based company, says it is in the process of seeking FDA approval for what would be the first-ever online eye exam that would result in an actual prescription. (Some web tests exist today, but if they detect blurry vision, they’ll only recommend an optometrist visit.) The company aims to offer its test online for $35, with an ophthalmologist who is licensed in the customer’s home state validating the results and emailing over a script.
If Opternative gets the go ahead, it could hurt business for traditional optometrists–marking one more way in which web technologies are automating a widening range of jobs. But it could also make it significantly easier for people both in the U.S. and, potentially, in the developing world to get a vision prescription and monitor for certain kinds of eye conditions associated with deteriorating eyesight. Besides, no one likes going to the doctor.
It took a year and a half of tinkering for Opternative to arrive at a reliable test. The trick was developing a digital equivalent for the the phoropter, the familiar machine in an optometrist’s office with thick lenses that rotate and measure refraction of the eye. Co-founder Steven Lee, an optometrist with a background in engineering and optics, thought of the idea because he was frustrated with the slow pace of change in his field. “I thought there really has to be a better way,” says Lee. “Everything advances so much. But if you look at the phoropter, there’s been very little innovation completed since 1921.”
Richard Madonna, chairman of the SUNY College of Optometry’s department of clinical education, called the idea an “interesting concept” and said he wouldn’t be surprised if Opternative had figured out how to administer a reasonably good online test for glasses. His biggest concern about the potentially disruptive idea is that it’s not a full exam that also checks the eye’s health. “The prescription might be accurate, but it doesn’t necessarily tell someone that they’ve got an eye problem or disease. I think that anything like this has to come with all sorts of caveats and so forth, and messages that tell people this.”
Opternative patients are first are asked to match their credit card to one pictured on the screen to adjust the resolution. They’re shown a series of colored shapes, developed by Opternative, that help measure for astigmatism and color-blindness. Then, using a person’s shoe size, Opternative calculates how many heel-to-toe steps are required to stand 10 feet from his or her laptop (+/- 6-inches). Next, asking their phone number, the user is sent a text message that turns their phone into a remote control to operate a distance vision test. Collecting these results as well as other kinds of data such as the completion time for each section, the software’s algorithms calculate a prescription. They also detect whether a person may have made errors. At no point in the process is the computer’s camera involved.
The company hasn’t yet done enough formal testing to compare its results to traditional eye exams, but from its limited users so far, expects the results will be the same or better. “Our test is what we call a self-confirming test,” says co-founder Aaron Dallek. “Of the three parts of the prescription, we don’t test for each of those with one test. Each part of the prescription is tested with multiple tests.”
Right now, the company is inviting people to sign up for a beta test it hopes to open up soon, while its lawyers are navigating what requirements it falls under to be cleared by the FDA. To address concerns that they aren’t testing for eye diseases or problems, the founders say they’re in the process of trying to develop additional online eye health tests, too.
Dallek says Opternative’s biggest shift could be making eye exams kind of fun. “There’s the convenience side, and there’s cost–and those are all good things. But having a test that you feel comfortable taking and even that you enjoy taking, that’s a big advantage.”