My wife is an optometrist. That means that my lenses prescriptions are always up-to-date, and we have a lot of vision-correcting hardware around the house1. While I’ve worn glasses since high school, they’ve usually been whatever was available for free via insurance2; my wife now makes sure that I pick the right lenses, frames and options.
With some added time spent researching what kinds of glasses are available beyond the selection sold at the optometrist’s office, I came across a peculiar startup, based right out of San Francisco, offering custom-built glasses. Topology Eyewear has been building custom frames since late 2017, just around the launch of the then-new iPhone X. Their business relies on that phone’s depth-mapping front-facing camera: it lets the app take a full facial scan, measuring the contours and dimensions of the customer’s face to render a custom frame exactly to those specifications3. There are a decent variety of styles to choose from—since they’re custom, the shapes of the frames are limited to a handful, but colors are plentiful—and the app renders a real-time preview on the face in lieu of trying it in-person.
Because the entire point of the company is to build glasses tailored to each customer by leveraging face-mapping technology, the selection and purchasing processes are automated as much as possible with light human interaction. This is certainly a break from the norm of buying glasses, where opticians are both salespeople and customer support and are very hands-on throughout. Topology’s strategy so far is reminiscent of Tesla’s recent measures: minimize hands-on trials, offer full returns to compensate for essentially committing sight-unseen4.
The process itself takes a couple of weeks from order to manufacturing to delivery. Whereas the selection process was largely automated through the app, shepherding users through the ordering process ended up being more manual, with their customer support on-hand to walk me through the status of the order. Their description of the manufacturing process actually makes it sound more bespoke than assembly line, though it makes marketing sense to emphasize the custom-ness of it all. I ended up asking for a few tweaks and after getting a few more photos and clarifications on my issues, they turned it around—again with engaged customer support—in a couple of weeks.
I’ve worn them now for a bit, and credit to the Topology team: these frames fit better than any frames I’ve had in the past. Due to my rather wide face and high cheek bones—something that’s starting to be recognized in the industry as facial features common in Asians and addressed with so-called Asian/Alternative Fit frames5—90% of the available eyewear in an optometrist’s office don’t work for me; my wife had helped me narrow my choice of comfortable glasses down to exactly one frame6. The glasses are wider and lighter than most, and the custom measurements allow the lenses to be placed pretty close to my eyes, which takes a bit to get used to but keeps them on my face longer. It’s not a bad product by any means, and in the worst case Topology offers full refunds if I change my mind.
That said, I feel like the startup is in for a rough fight against an overwhelmingly dominant monopolistic industry in consumer eyewear. Every couple of years, there’s a news article that (re)reveals the fact that the glasses business is almost completely consolidated behind the company Luxottica—now merged with a competitor into EssilorLuxottica—who owns pretty much all the brands and marks up their products with ridiculous profit margins. Those massive profits, though, are a beacon for startups to try to disrupt; Warby Parker is probably the most visible entrant in the space, targeting the lower end of the market while enabling an online-only shopping experience.
Topology, on the other hand, has priced itself on the high end of the consumer market, though with a feature (customization) that would otherwise not even be broadly available. The problem is that most people are quite price-sensitive to eyewear, and the glasses-wearing population mostly seems to tolerate ill-fitting frames as long as it still corrects their vision. In showing my Topology glasses to colleagues, many commented positively and complained about how their own glasses didn’t fit well, yet they have accepted their predicament as the norm. It is annoying when brought up as a topic of conversation, but not really worth their attention otherwise.
Of course, I do hope that Topology is able to stick around, improve their processes, and offer more custom glasses at lower costs to more people. I want to see technology overtake legacy industries that are both inefficient and monopolistic, and software is a really good mechanism to bring personalization at affordable scale7. When I’m shopping for glasses again in 2 years’ time, I’ll see whether these frames—and the company behind it—hold up.
To be completely fair, since I’m a software guy there is also a ridiculous abundance of computing devices and screens laid around as well.↩
I.e., bulky, heavy, and not particularly attractive.↩
Though from their FAQ, it sounds like they relied on just photos and 2D videos before, which seems much more fraught with errors.↩