“Colours speak all languages.” – Joseph Addison
Out of all our senses, our visual sense relays optimum information to the brain. We derive, conclude, feel and react most to what we see. Colour plays a vitally important role in the world in which we live. Colour can sway thinking, change actions, and cause reactions. It can irritate or soothe our eyes, raise your blood pressure or suppress appetite. When used in the right ways, colour can even save on energy consumption. As a powerful form of communication, colour is irreplaceable. Red means “stop” and green means “go.” Traffic lights send this universal message. Likewise, the colours used for a product, web site, business card, or logo cause powerful reactions. So what happens when some of us are deprived from a sense of colour?
Colour blindness, or colour vision deficiency affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women around the world. Individuals who suffer from colour blindness do not necessarily see life in black and white. They see objects and surroundings in shades of a specific colour family.
There are different causes of colour blindness. For the vast majority of people with deficient colour vision the condition is genetic and has been inherited from a parent, although some people become colour blind as a result of other diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Some might even acquire the condition over time due to the aging process, medication etc. There are several types of colour blindness, based on the alignment and functioning of colour perception cones in our retinas. The most common types are protanomaly, which is a reduced sensitivity to red light, deuteranomaly which is a reduced sensitivity to green light and is the most common form of colour blindness and tritanomaly which is a reduced sensitivity to blue light and is extremely rare.
In 2010, researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Davis made a breakthrough in vision tech. Dr. Don McPherson from California, who specialized in glass sciences, had developed glasses to help doctors see better during laser surgery. He noticed certain color transformations when he wore his lab glasses, coated with the special lens formula he had invented. One afternoon in 2005, McPherson and a friend were playing ultimate Frisbee in Santa Cruz. His friend admiring his eyewear, asked to borrow them. When he put the glasses on, he was stunned by what he saw. His friend, who had been colour blind his whole life, was actually able to see the orange hue for the first time, and distinguish that colour from the surrounding grass and concrete.
This incident propelled McPherson towards a detailed research analysis. Clinical trials of the early prototypes revealed that the lenses had benefits serving as an optical aid to the colour blind. The research was conducted under NIH SBIR grants, with test sites allocated at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. Despite all the advancements, there was still more work that needed to be done to turn the lenses into a consumer-ready product. Don teamed up with Andrew Schmeder, who specialized in several fields including mathematics, computer model simulation and perceptual psychology. Together, they co-founded EnChroma, Inc. in 2010.
The glasses are built on fundamental vision science. McPherson explains that all people have three photopigments in the eye (the three cones) which are sensitive to blue, green and red. Blue operates fairly independently, while the red and green cones, in most humans, overlap, affecting the perception of certain colours. A problem arises when the red-green cones overlap too much, a condition that accounts for 99 percent of colourblindness cases. When this happens, in the previous scenario, instead of yellow, an individual would perceive little, if any colour. EnChroma’s technology works by placing a band of absorption on glasses that captures light, pushing the cones away from each other and reestablishing the normal distribution of photons on them.
To further bolster the effect of the glasses, Schmeder created a sophisticated model of colour vision in the human eye that incorporates 10,000 natural and man-made colours. Deriving from this, he designed a filter for the eyewear that optimizes the way a user views this wide spectrum of hues.
EnChroma is currently focusing on rolling out indoor versions of the glasses, a pediatric model and an online test that can help people analyze colourblindness at home. For children especially, wearing EnChroma glasses could help correct their colourblindness and prevent it from progressing further. A contact lens version of the glasses is currently in the works. EnChroma glasses work for about 80 percent of people with red-green colourblindness.