Behind the brand

“Innovation gets me out of bed in the morning”

Professor David Thomson, founder and CEO of Thomson Software Solutions, on developments in technology, changes in optometry, and giving back

The Thomson Software Solutions team stands smiling on an exhibition stand with the company’s branding
Thomson Software Solutions

Behind the scenes with Thomson Software Solutions

What makes the company and its approach or products unique?

Thomson Software Solutions evolved out of research I was doing at City, University of London, and we do still try to adopt an evidence-based approach to everything we do. For a small company, we have an impressive record for innovation, developing the first computerised Test Chart, first Near Vision app, first Clinical Eye Tracker, and first computerised Hess Screen. Having one foot in the world of optometry and one in the world of technology has enabled me to identify applications for emerging technology within the world of optometry and ophthalmology.

What is the latest solution that you have released and why does it stand out from the crowd?

At 100% Optical we showcased the new Clinical Eye Tracker 5L, an updated version of the Thomson Near Chart, and our new Virtual Synoptophore system. I am particularly excited about the Near Chart. A few years ago, we saw that phones and tablets were coming to the market with high-resolution screens. The computerised test charts had taken off for assessing distance vision, but when it came to near vision, practices were still using old pieces of printed card or books. We developed what I believe was the first app for Apple, which would turn your device into a vision test.

The slight problem with using these devices is that you have to pass it back and forth to change the tests. We have developed a programme that, through scanning a QR code, creates a link between the device and the PC so you can operate the tests from the computer. I think it is the holy grail of near vision testing.

What innovations are you excited to be working on?

I think eye tracking has a huge future in clinical care. In the past, taking measurements of eye movements required sophisticated kit that cost tens of thousands. Then a company in Sweden, Tobii, started to produce consumer models of its eye tracking technology for the purposes of accessibility and gaming. They made it available for a low price and encouraged people to write software for it. We took the tracker bar, which attaches to the bottom of the computer screen, and developed software to measure eye movements.

The beauty of this, is that you can set somebody real-world tasks, like reading text, and it provides a dynamic and more realistic measure of binocular vision. The system gives practices a whole new range of tests for binocular vision and an objective method for assessing the benefits of other interventions. Currently around 300 practices use the eye tracker.
We’ve introduced a new Tobii bar which also allows you to measure pupil responses, and we’re creating various new modules for the software. We’re working with the University of Central Lancashire and sponsoring a PhD student to explore assessment of reading performance. Our hope is that we could develop a screening module which will objectively signal if a child could have dyslexia using a traffic light system.

The pattern of eye movements a child with dyslexia uses to read is very different. By measuring eye movements while a child reads carefully designed text, we believe that it will be possible to detect children with dyslexia. With the current shortage of educational psychologists, this could support screening and at least highlight some children who are experiencing significant problems.

Are there any new projects in development that customers should be aware of?

We have many ongoing projects – innovation gets me out of bed in the morning. We are currently working on using virtual reality (VR) headsets for a range of vision tests, and launched our Virtual Synoptophore at 100% Optical. The Virtual Synoptophore uses a very affordable VR headset which uses a standard phone as the screen. The clinician can then use software installed on a PC to project a wide range of binocular vision tests onto the phone screen within the headset. The Virtual Synoptophore software is bundled free of charge with the Thomson Near Chart software, and together they provide a huge range of near tests at a very reasonable price.

What are the company’s main ambitions for the next 12 months?

We have a backlog of ideas and innovations waiting to be implemented. The new Near Chart and Virtual Synoptophore software were really well received at 100% Optical and we look forward to rolling these out this year. We also aim to run more webinars and CPD this year, to explain the purpose and benefits of our software for practice.

How does the company seek to support the wider community?

We do, and have always, had a charitable component to what we do. We have supported Vision Care for Homeless People (VCHP) from the beginning, financially, and by providing test chart software. Elaine Styles [optometrist and chair of trustees at VCHP] was a student at City, University of London, which is where I was introduced to her. I think the work that Elaine and the team have done in setting up the clinics is fantastic. It is brilliant that VCHP is expanding, and we’re happy to continue providing the hardware and software for testing.  

What is your favourite thing about the products you provide?

It brings me a huge amount of satisfaction to know that patients are being tested using our solutions every day. Our software makes a real difference in the world and is improving the quality of patient care.

Beyond the brand

What are some of the biggest opportunities that you see in optometry?

I think artificial intelligence (AI) is going to affect all aspects of life. There are companies working in this space and Moorfields has a big team on this. There are already systems out there analysing fundus images. AI could be hugely beneficial in people’s healthcare, but it needs to be steered in the right direction.

Remote vision assessment will be a big thing for the future, I believe, particularly within hospitals. We have an ageing population, and fantastic new treatments which increase demand for services. A lot of hospital eye services are struggling to keep up. When you analyse the patients going through hospital departments, many could be tested and managed remotely if suitable software was available. Our Near Chart system is already being used for the remote assessment of visual acuity and central visual fields, using the patient’s own phone or tablet. I think this is a real growth area.

How have you seen the profession evolve?

If I look back at the changes that have occurred since I started practising, the profession has changed beyond recognition. We now have instruments that can image the eye in ways which were unimaginable 40 years ago and this has certainly improved the quality of care that optometrists can offer. But I think that this is only the start – the next 10 years will bring developments which we can’t even imagine at this stage, and the profession will need to be able to adapt rapidly in response to these changes.

Do you see any challenges ahead?

When I was head of department at City, University of London, I always felt that we should be preparing students for the future. Like all professions, I think optometry is going to be massively affected by technology.

Technology is only going to move in one direction. We have machines that can take an image of the back of the eye, and programmes which can tell us whether it is normal or abnormal. We have machines that can do an objective and subjective refraction. You can see that, in the not-too-distant-future, that could all be brought together in one package. The economic arguments for going in that direction could be pretty overwhelming and difficult to resist – how quickly it happens depends on how good a resistance professional bodies put up.

What I think optometry should be doing, and has been doing effectively, is change its emphasis. If we only concentrate on our traditional role of refraction and screening for eye disease, a lot of that will be taken on by technology. In the UK there are not enough ophthalmologists and so optometry is getting far more involved in the diagnosis and management of eye disease. I think this has a much better long-term future and is absolutely the right thing to be doing.