By
CNBC
updated 5/12/2003 5:17:09 AM ET 2003-05-12T09:17:09

After ‘peeking’ two years ago, the Lasik corrective eye surgery market has gone a little blurry — contracting by almost 10 percent, due in part to a soft economy and consumer concerns over the procedure. But now there’s a new eye mapping technique that those in the industry hope will bring the business back into focus.

THE TECHNIQUE is called Wavefront, a method of looking at the abnormalities in your eyes using a computer program and then using that program to better guide the laser during corrective surgery.

The creators of the process say it’ll help you see the stars in the heavens better. Actually, that’s where it all started.

The last time you went to the eye doctor, you probably had the traditional exam: a series of questions about which lens helped improve your vision,

Using computer software, your eyes can now be mapped. Laser surgery pioneer VISX, based in Santa Clara, Calif., has a set-up that checks 200 different points on your eye, giving the examiner an extensive look at just what’s causing your vision problem.

“We now have an objective, much more precise, much more comprehensive measurement that mankind has never known before,” said VISX CEO Liz Davila.

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How long does it take? Not much longer than reading this sentence.

Then, using a laser, the system can cut a pair of “preview” lenses, giving you an idea of how you’ll be able to see if you decide to go ahead with the surgery. And if you decide it’s a go, the new “map” will guide the laser. Or, it will when the Food and Drug Administration approves the procedure.

In VISX’s case, approval is expected in June. Bausch and Lomb hopes to have the same by year’s end. And Alcon Labs, based in San Antonio, Tex., was first to market with a nearsightedness treatment last fall.

Just where did they get this idea? Up there.

‘This technology came from astronomy,” said Dr. Robert Maloney, a VISX consultant. “Astronomers have been using this technology to get more clear images of distant galaxies for 10, 20 years now.”

The laser surgery folks hope it gives them a clearer image too — of their bottom lines. After the boom of the 90’s, the number of procedures — and stock prices in the sector — have been falling stars — from a peak of 1.4 million procedures in 2000. A laser manufacturer like VISX gets a per-procedure fee, as well as profits from selling the machines. So the market potential is huge.

“We believe in the United States, that there are 50 or 60 million people who are good candidates for this procedure,” said Davila. “And up until now about five percent of those have been treated.”

The new mapping procedure may be good for laser surgery, but it’s not suited to cutting lenses for eyeglasses — because your eyes move behind the lens. But the mapping may work for contact lenses - because the lens moves with your eye.

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