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Color My World: Innovative Glasses Allow Colorblind to See What They’ve Been Missing

November 17, 2015
by Marica Petrey

I had to see for myself why some users have called them “happy glasses”—through them, everything looks more vibrant, distinct and intense. As soon as I donned the glasses, the run-down street I was walking on in West Berkeley looked as if it suddenly had been given a fresh coat of paint, the grays dusted away. I felt as if I was inside an oversaturated Instagram photo, or Pleasantville after the town was colored in.

The color shift I experienced while wearing EnChroma Cx lenses was overdramatic—but that’s because I’m not colorblind.

EnChroma, a Berkeley-based company co-founded by Cal alums, is beginning to expand the way colorblind people can see the world. Their new lenses cannot cure or treat colorblindness, but promise the next best thing: color-corrected vision for people with the most common types of colorblindness. And they’ve been getting a lot of attention, from viral videos to write-ups in The New York Times and Smithsonian magazine.

EnChroma began as an accident, when glass scientist Don McPherson discovered that some lenses he had invented as laser protection for surgeons also enabled one of his friends to see orange in the cones on a soccer field. McPherson received a grant from the National Institutes of Health  in 2005 to continue researching and developing lenses for the colorblind. Computer scientist and mathematician Andrew Schmeder, a UC Berkeley alum, was working as a researcher at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies when he got pulled into the project that same year.  “McPhearson was working in the very early phases of an EnChroma lens when he lost his collaboration partner,” Schmeder recalls. “This guy left behind all of his work in Mathematica,” a rather obscure programming language. “It’s sort of like mathematician-computer-amazingness…Somehow we got connected and I was like ‘yeah, I use Mathematica all the time!’”

Andrew Schmeder with rubix cube
EnChroma co-founder Andrew Schmeder

Schmeder and his fellow UC Berkeley graduate Tony Dykes co-founded EnChroma with McPhearson in 2010 and launched their first commercial prototype in 2012. It was very expensive and also defective. The lenses “had a strange interaction with fluorescent lighting and caused all fluorescent lights to become an eerie purple-pink,” Schmeder says with a laugh. “If you went by an office building and looked up, the whole building would be glowing with this weird pink. It was very disturbing.”

They went back to the lab to fine-tune the process and came out with the cheaper, better all- plastic lens they have now.

The EnChroma team compares the lenses to a sound board with faders for low, medium, and high frequencies. “When you see a color, it’s actually a spectrum of light,” says Schmeder. “Light has a spectrum just like sound. There are high, middle, and low frequencies. The balance of those three tell you what color it is. It’s a little like auto-tune actually. It forces colors into their primary categories instead of being in the intermediate shades. It forces it to be in either red or green category.”

Videos posted by EnChroma wearers on YouTube seem to suggest the lenses can offer a life-changing experience for some. In one video, a father is brought to tears as he sees the color of his daughter’s eyes for the first time. In another, a man chokes up as he watches the sunset with the glasses on. “I can cry a little, watching them myself,” Schmeder says. “It totally got to me.”

“Life-changing,” was how Christopher “Burd” Quines, a Bay Area videographer and musician, described the experience of testing the glasses for California.

EnChroma’s founders now say demand for the product has them overwhelmed. “Now it’s such a whirlwind and I’m just trying to keep it all together.”

Many experts are focused on gene therapy as the emerging cure for what they refer to as color vision deficiency. Marc Levin, a neuro-ophthalmologist and assistant professor at UC-San Francisco, says “gene-therapy approaches to replacing absent red or green photopigments are on the horizon.” But for now, he acknowledges the benefits of EnChroma’s innovation.

“The strategy behind EnChroma lenses is to use an optical device to filter out the light that the red and green photo-pigments sense most similarly. That way, the brain receives more distinct information from the two pigments and can more readily interpret color,” explains Dr. Levin.

“The nice thing about these lenses is that they do not need to be tailored to the individual’s genetic alteration and can thus be produced and sold at lower cost. That said, they only can provide incremental benefit, and are more likely to provide subjective benefit to those with milder color deficiency.

“Any incremental benefit would be a welcome advance for patients yearning to experience color as most perceive it.

Quines realized early on that he saw the world differently than his friends.

“That’s a really cool black car!”

“Dude, that’s purple.”

“That’s not purple! It’s black.”

“Dude, it’s purple.”

An eye exam in elementary school confirmed that Quines was colorblind. “The doctor was kind of a jerk and drilled me on what color this was and what color that was,” he recalls. “He made me feel bad for not knowing what color anything was.”

If the doctor had known anything about colorblindness (or kids), he would have been a little more understanding. Nearly 1 in 10 males are born colorblind—the condition is far more rare in females. Many people think that colorblind individuals see everything in gray scale, but the term is misleading. In fact, 99 percent of colorblind people can still see colors, but have difficulty distinguishing between certain colors and have an overall narrowed perception of color. More accurately described as color vision deficiency, the condition is caused by abnormal photo-pigments located inside of the eye’s cone cells.

vision types graphic
Image courtesy of Johannes Ahlmann

As common as colorblindness is, there are few options for those who have it. People like Quines have learned to live with it by memorizing the order that colors appear on traffic lights, or asking friends to help them sort clothing.

“So many aspects of our day-to-day experience are influenced and enhanced by the normal perception of color. Color deficiency would make a painter’s canvas dull,” says Dr. Levin. But colorblindness can affect more than just the perception of color. In Quines’s case, it affects his work. “I can’t color correct, and that’s kind of difficult. As a video editor, you just want to be able to do all of it yourself and call it a day, but I have to call up a buddy. It’s kind of embarrassing, too, to have to go to someone and ask, ‘Hey, do you know what color this is?’”

Eventually EnChroma hopes to customize its lenses to each individual’s type and severity of colorblindness. As of now, the company acknowledges that about 20 percent of colorblind people are outliers and would not be helped by its glasses. “And sometimes, they are the most needy people because they have the most severe cases of colorblindness,” says Schmeder. “I really want to address those people and help them.”

And the company would also like to refine EnChroma lenses to the point where they could win approval for use in certain restricted occupations—such as piloting, firefighting, or commercial driving—that are now virtually closed to colorblind individuals. “Right now, we are selling access to a life experience that you haven’t had before, which is very compelling,” says Schmeder. “The next level is giving you access to a source of income that you haven’t had before. That’s pretty powerful. But the amount of groundwork to do that is pretty substantial. You have to be able to take all of this evidence to the regulatory authorities. So that will take some time.”

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