By Andrew Karp
Jean Philippe Sayag is the founder, CEO and president of the ACEP Group, a French company that has developed an array of products that eyecare professionals, optical retail chains and lens manufacturers use to wow their customers with the latest virtual try-on, measuring and vision testing technology.
As the inventor of the first systems to help customers choose their frames in 1994, the first touchscreens in 1997 and the Smart Kiosk column in 2000, ACEP continues to innovate. The company’s current product lineup of tablet-based solutions and measurement systems incorporates augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and includes the Smart Mirror Mobile iPad app, e-Column, ACEP TryLive and Smart Look.
“ACEP is an acronym for a French word, but could be translated into English as: A (Application), C (Creative), E (Eyecare), P (Professional) or Creative Applications for Eyecare Professionals,” says Sayag.
ACEP sells its products in the U.S. and Canada through a wholly-owned subsidiary, ABS, Inc. The Miami, Fla.-based company is headed by Fabian Bruneau, who has worked for the company since 2001.
Sayag is well equipped to lead an international technology company, having earned a B.A. in engineering and a Master’s degree in international business. “I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I started ACEP France right after graduation, so I’ve been working in the optical industry my entire professional career,” he notes.
Sayag focuses on ACEP Group’s global vision and strategy. As team leader, he balances short-term and long-term priorities and shapes the future of the business. He works actively with the Group’s R&D team to provide what he describes as “a personalized and fantastic digital customer experience.”
20/20 spoke with Sayag to learn more about ACEP’s forward-leaning approach to vision technology.
20/20: What are the origins of ACEP? How did the company gain expertise in creating measuring technologies for opticians?
Everything started in 1994 when I was a student in New York City. I was looking for products and ideas and decided to visit Vision Expo East. I realized that purchasing new frames is challenging for patients who just had their eyes dilated or can’t see without their Rx glasses, which is about 1 out of 3 patients. That is how we developed the first selfie machine without even realizing it. We created a smart mirror using a computer, camera and a screen and a healthy dose of wackiness with an industrial father who was there to convince us that the idea was even more impressive than we thought and a software developer cousin who wrote the original code in less than a month.
In 1994, no optician provided this service. Twenty-three years later, almost half of them offer it.
With this mirror, customers could finally see what they looked like when wearing their new glasses but while watching how opticians used this, ECPs and lens manufacturers thought this sales tool would be even better with a lens simulator and if it was combined with a measuring apparatus. We hired our head engineer who holds a Ph.D. in geometry and topography—he and his R&D team worked closely with lens manufacturers to develop our first digital measuring device, the Smart Centration, in 2003. We are now the optical industry’s expert in iOS app development and electronic dispensing systems and hold seven patents on digital centration.
R&D and creating innovative solutions for optical retailers is our DNA, which is why we invest over 25 percent of our turnover in developing new products and solutions. We have even built a unique career path for our developers who must spend a year in an optical store to have hands-on field experience. The majority of our software engineers have at least 15 years of experience working in the optical industry and over 30 years for a couple of them.
How did the company apply its technical expertise to expand its product line beyond measuring systems to include touchscreens, virtual try-on and more recently, VR and Vision Tests?
We increased from four developers to 22 over the last six years. So to get more expertise you need to hire more talent. We developed native iOS apps using Swift, a new language that was created two years ago. The same thing for VR Unity was just designed. So the team must be agile, mobile and need to learn and be trained on new technologies. Our team is going to most of the technological shows such as CES where we see you every year, by the way, computer conventions, WWDC from Apple and more. The team spends 10 percent of their time on a training course.
Regarding Vision Test, it is a bit different; we had to hire an optometrist as the product manager. That was the only way to develop the correct product, and we have a group of pilot optometrists that test our apps in Europe and give us their feedback.
Why did ACEP acquire TryLive technology?
ACEP is the specialist in digital measurements and the augmented reality of the lenses. (Total Immersion) TryLive is the specialist of the augmented reality of the frame. Online shopping is on the rise, and as optical retailers invest more in their multichannel sales approach to provide their customer with an integrated shopping experience, our clients were asking us to develop virtual try-on (VTO) for frames. So the strategic rationale behind this acquisition was to get the missing part of the puzzle more quickly than we could have built in house. We are now the only player to offer expertise in lenses AR, frames AR and measurements.
When we acquired TryLive, we realized that no VTO companies were providing HTML5 solutions and that the technology was not adapted to respond quickly to mobile devices. Since the acquisition we have developed such solutions, and we created the 3D mobile rendering of the eyewear specially adapted for iOS and Android smartphones that guarantees a quicker, smoother, polished and intuitive VR experience. More and more optical chain stores adopt our technology because this is the future. During Vision Expo East, we will launch a new concept of the VTO kiosk integrating that technology.
Why did ACEP decide to focus on enhancing the patient experience?
Because this is the most important: Today, 50 percent of the customers are new customers, so you need to understand why they changed, what was their experience, and what needs to be improved. And the answer is, patient experience.
We have created a disruptive digital customer journey. By adopting our journey, we can move from 50 percent to 70 percent customer loyalty. Our customers outperform the market. Last year, Specsavers in the UK, which adopts our solutions, had the best growth they ever had +6.6 percent, and this is just the first year; the real result will be when those customers buy a new pair of glasses. Where do you think they will go?
What features of the company’s latest products reflect its focus on enhancing the patient experience?
We focus on all aspects, such as analysis of old equipment, lifestyle questionnaire, virtual try-on, vision testing, digital centration and augmented reality simulations. Half of the customers are not entirely satisfied with their progressive lenses; with our customer journey, we are solving that problem.
Today the customer uses the near vision more often than before because of smartphones and tablets. We look at our phone 200 times per day… so you need to be able to see your smartphone instantly. That is why we are using a smartphone or a tablet to analyze your eyes’ movements when you look at your smartphone. This is one of our patents, and that is the only tool to select the best progressive lenses for your customers. The customer is so impressed by this experience that he will come back to the same ECP to get the next pair.
How does ACEP collect feedback from customers, and how is that feedback used to improve existing products and create new ones?
We have two types of feedback, an instant feedback with the analytics collected from the apps, so we know in real time the average usage of a new function if one module is not used, we develop a new one and recheck the analytics.
Our strength is having 38,000 licenses worldwide, so we have lots of analytics data to improve our apps. We also have direct feedback from chain stores and independent ECPs worldwide with specific inquiry or modification.
How fast is VR technology for demonstrating ophthalmic lenses taking hold in Europe? U.S.? Asia?
In Europe, VR is very popular, about 20 percent of ECPs have invested in VR. The global satisfaction is quite high especially to demonstrate polarized lenses.
In the U.S., adoption is slower, but it has always been the case for this market. It was the same with Smart Mirror Mobile on iPad; it took a bit more time, and today the tool is so popular, it is incredible. I expect VR will indeed be successful when the labs understand its value for their accounts.
In Asia it will not be popular because of high myopia. VR is not adapted to be used with such power.
Please explain how the company’s Vision Tests work. What vision parameters are measured, and what is done with the data gathered through the tests?
Thanks to ECP feedback and market surveys, we know that 50 percent of consumers are not fully satisfied with their progressive lenses and especially the near vision. So we have started to work with a group of optometrists. We saw that the visual acuity in near vision is not done correctly but thanks to technology, it is possible to solve that. Today, to check the near vision acuity for reading, the OD uses printed reading cards; the only problem is those cards have been printed to be read at 16 inches (40 cm), and the reading distance of the patient is not 16 inches. So we have developed a tool to measure the reading distance and then automatically adapt the text size on the tablet according to that distance. Our experience, thanks to that test we have to modify the addition for 90 percent of the patients. We have, of course, also developed far vision, astigmatism, polarized test and much more.
Is the test intended to be used directly by consumers, or with the aid of an optician or optometrist?
This test cannot be used at home. It has to be performed by an optometrist. We have also developed a pre-screening test to check the add power. That pre-screening test is performed by the customer and can be downloaded with any smartphone.
What type of training does ACEP provide for customers?
We offer in-app tutorials, training videos, CE webinars and in-store training for larger accounts or when we have a rep in the customer’s area. ?