|A Photochromic Future|
Manufacturers see “changing” lenses as optical’s next growth frontier
by Brian P. Dunleavy
If you were among those walking the aisles at Vision Expo East in New York a few months ago, you know you didn’t need to go far to hear news about some form of photochromic technology. No fewer than 18 lens manufacturers and/or distributors were touting either new photochromic technology or the availability of their product lines in established photochromic technology.
As one lens manufacturer exhibiting at the show said, “Photochromics, along with A-R, are probably the next frontier for the industry. Progressive technology has been the in thing for several years now, but the industry seems to be looking for a new message, something to generate a buzz. Photo-chromics might be it.”
Few would argue that, until now, progressives and “light and thin” lenses (i.e., ultra high-index, high-index, mid-index and polycarbonate lenses) have been the focus of research and development and marketing efforts within the lens arena in recent years. A quick look at major product releases over that time confirms as much. And certainly these areas are still important for the immediate future, as the introduction of new materials (from companies such as PPG, Optima, Essilor, Hoya, Younger and Seiko) and new progressive designs (from companies such as Seiko, Essilor, Shamir, Hoya and Zeiss) over the past year alone indicates.
But while these innovations are significant and laudable, photo-chromics—perhaps because of the bundle of features and benefits they offer, if not the flurry of new entries into the category—have caused quite a stir.
Consider the ammunition dispensers have at the fitting table:
Function: Photochromic manufacturers cringe when their products are mentioned in the same breath as sunglass lenses. But that’s not because their lenses can’t achieve the same outdoor performance. The Sunglass Association of America defines general-purpose sunlenses as lenses with light transmittance between 8 percent and 40 percent. SAA research shows most consumers choose sunglass lenses with transmittance in the 15 percent to 25 percent range.
In recent years, photochromic manufacturers have introduced products with light transmittance performance—at the darkened stage, of course—falling well within that range. Available in both plastic and glass, these products promise ultraviolet (UV) protection and darkening capability rivaling that of many standard sunlens products.
Still, manufacturers hesitate to label their products—particularly in plastic—as a replacement for sunlenses outdoors. One reason is many of these products are adversely affected by the UV treatments in car windshields. Instead, they encourage dispensers to position these products as offering “sunlens-like” performance.
Convenience: Of course, there’s another reason photochromic manufacturers tend to bristle at the sunlens comparison: Their lenses are also clear indoors. In other words, at least according to the philosophies of photochromic manufacturers, sunglasses serve one function; photochromics, theoretically, serve two.
Indeed, there’s another side to the photochromic story: improved clarity. While manufacturers have improved the outdoor performance of their products, they’ve also enhanced their lenses indoors. Indoor clarity with many photochromic products has reached new heights—with some light transmittance levels indoors reaching as high as 85 percent to more than 90 percent. What this means for you, at the dispensing table, is you can now truly sell many of these photochromic products as indoor/outdoor lenses, one that darkens to sunlens levels outdoors and “lightens” to levels of a clear lens indoors. In addition, manufacturers have also sped up the activation times of their lenses, meaning photochromics now darken and/or fade faster than ever before. For patients seeking the convenience of all-in-one eyewear (i.e., not having to change from clear spectacles to sunglasses) as they move indoors and outdoors during the day, photochromics now promise all new, dual-function performance.
Fashion: Not so long ago, photochromic lenses darkened to one of two colors—brown or gray. While those two colors still make up the majority of sales (with sales in the upper 90th percentile, according to the Jobson Optical Group Data Base), availability of new, “colorful” tints may ultimately open up the photo-chromic market to a new patient demographic—those who are younger and more fashion-conscious.
Depending on the design or manufacturer, patients can purchase lenses that change from lighter shades (close to clear) indoors to darker shades of colors such as purple, red, green, blue, orange and yellow. Or they can have lenses that change from one color indoors to another outdoors. These lenses are available in red to purple, blue to green and yellow to orange.
Availability: Of course, all of these features and benefits would mean nothing unless they were available in the lens designs and materials patients want. So while manufacturers clamor for new photochromic technology, photochromic manufacturers, in turn, want to see their products available in everything from single-vision to progressive, conventional plastic to polycarbonate, mid-index, high-index, ultra high-index, glass and Trivex; and with or without anti-reflective coating.
As a result, dispensers now have a full arsenal of photochromic products at their disposal and, thanks to improved technology, a wider audience—including patients young and old as well as converted sunglass wearers (depending on their eyeglass needs)—to sell them to. No wonder lens manufacturers are investing much of the future in this ever-changing product.