NIN: How long have you guys been around?
Aaron: We've been around for two years. We've been working on it together full time since then.
What was the motivating factor behind the business?
Steve: My background's actually in Optometry: Engineering and Optics. I practiced until 2007 and taught Ophthalmology at Northwestern Hospital, but I basically came up with the concept of an online refraction-type system because I thought that the old, antiquated system of a big, bulky machine that you place in front of your eyes, where the doctor asks you, "Which one's sharper, 1 or 2?" really had to be replaced. There’d been no innovation for a number of years. I think it was in the 1800's when they first created that machine, so, basically, I thought there had to be a better way.
And, in terms of providing a system that might be able to eradicate trips to optometrists, was that an immediate goal?
Steve: One of our goals is accessibility for everyone ...Regardless of your race or gender. We just wanted to make it so that anyone can have an eye exam, and they really deserve that. Unlike the current system, where you really can only obtain an eye exam if you have the money, and we didn't think that was right.
What tool made that possible? Better cellphone cameras?
Steve: So, the unique thing about our technology is that is actually doesn't require the camera in a cell phone or a laptop.
All it requires is, basically, a digital screen of at least 800x600 dpi - your iPad, your tablet, your laptop, like your Mac or your PC. Combine that with a cell phone, such as your iPhone and you have a full-fledged system that can actually determine your prescription.
For people who are concerned it's not as accurate as the old system, how accurate is it?
Steve: Our current in-house tests have actually showed that we're currently on par with the standard phoropter [instrument currently used by optometrists], so that's the gold standard.
And, are you in operation? Have people been using this platform already?
Steve: We're very selective with who we test the solution on.
Who was the first person you tested it on?
Aaron: First person we tested on ourselves.
Do either of you wear glasses normally?
Aaron: Contacts for the both of us. Yeah. We both found out a lot about our eyes over the last two years. We take the test on a regular basis. (laughter) We have to test it, right? Um, the prescription doesn't change, but our test and the prescription that's spit out from our tests, you know, has evolved somewhat, because we've gotten more and more accurate over that time.
What was that feeling like when it worked for the first time?
Aaron: Oh, it was amazing. It was amazing. I mean, we had some people come in, like a future developer that we're trying to recruit. He took the test and we gave him lenses with different prescriptions - ours and his normal prescription - and he didn't know which one was which, and he choose one, and it was our prescription. It's like, "Wow. That's great."
That's cool. Have you worked with unrelated individuals, off the street? Volunteers?
Aaron: Yeah, we've done over 500 volunteers. Taken them through the exam, and doing full-satisfaction surveys afterwards, that is, actually getting glasses put on their face.
And the current users are all in western, developed countries still?
Aaron: They're only in our office (laughter). Yeah. Everyone so far has had to come into the office. It's a controlled environment. Just for security purposes and other reasons, we haven't released it.
And, in terms of the plan for release, how far away are you?
Aaron: We're still shooting for winter of this year .
And then in terms of fulfillment, will it be desktop-based, app-based?
Aaron: It's web-based.
Have you had any resistance from traditional optometrists and other specialists?
Aaron: Optometrists have had some concerns, but we hope that, when they fully understand the technology, they'll realize that we're not out to replace them, but to reach those who can't otherwise get to [eye exams].
Is there a place for both traditional optometrists and retail outlets as well as Opternative and online retailers?
Aaron: Yes. We believe there is.
Outside of your endeavor here with Opternative, if you could make something else "not impossible," across any spectrum, what would it be? What would be that something else you'd like to tackle?
Aaron: Just anything? I come from the sustainability space and I think, for me, what would be nice to have that's not possible is clean, renewable, sustainable energy. And, more importantly, economic incentives and an environment that supports that, which is ultimately what's missing.
Steve, what would you change, make better, disrupt?
Steve: My whole thing has been affiliated with healthcare in general. I mean, we're focused on one portion of healthcare, but I've always believed in accessibility for all, regardless of who the person is. That's one of my strong passions. Just making healthcare accessible regardless of demographics and cultural differences, racial differences, gender. Everything should be equal amongst everyone.
To sign up for the Opternative experience, visit Steve and Aaron's site here.