Nearly 8 percent of men in the world are color vision deficient (CVD) and one in 200 women also struggle with the palette. This can be extremely limiting in life, even affecting career choices that require color discernment, like being a pilot or an electrician. In a few nations, it actually prevents people from having a driver’s license.
All that could change very soon. I recently purchased a pair of Enchroma color-enhancing sunglasses for a man in my family. I have the genes for tetrachromacy—the fourth cone class for color vision—and the men in such women’s families (tetrachromats are always women) are often CVD while the distaff side sees as many as one hundred times more color than normal. How could I accept the bounty of extra hues and allow my loved one to remain deficient?
“Is that a red rose?” he asked while walking with me through a garden. “I’ve never seen purple before!” he exclaimed, thumbing through the children's book on color and examining the container of jelly beans I purchased for the moment. Enchroma even includes multi-colored balloons in the shipping package for such occasions and the staff at a local Party City store inflated them and attached coordinating colorful ribbons and weights. They so enjoyed being in on the secret they asked me to phone them after the “reveal.” It was truly moving.
Perhaps you’ve seen similar testimonials. YouTube is full of emotional scenes of fathers seeing their children's’ eye colors for the first time and children hugging their parents with tears in their eyes after the world opens up. This one is my favorite.
This miracle of vision happened because, according to Enchroma, Don McPherson, a doctor of glass science, noticed his new invention—laser safety glasses for surgeons—had a coincidental positive effect on the vision of people with color blindness. "This discovery was the basis for an SBIR grant from the US Small Business Administration, which launched the research critical to the formation of Enchroma. In addition to his contributions to Enchroma, Don has served as President of Bay Glass Research, Inc., Vice President of Research and Development at Vetrazzo, Inc., and Founder & CEO Counter Production, LLC. Don is the recipient of 5 NEI, NIH, and National Cancer Institute grants and has authored six patents and 14 scientific papers."
He teamed up with UC Berkeley-trained mathematician Andrew Schmeder, who has broad expertise with technological innovation and was responsible for the design and optimization of Enchroma’s products. "Andy’s diverse background includes time as a staff researcher at UC Berkeley where he was introduced to the concept of perceptual psychophysics: the science of how physical events that occur in the world relate to the human perception and cognition resulting from those events. Through this intellectual framework, Schmeder was initially introduced to the idea of using technology to assist with sensory disabilities by looking at how the parameters of digital hearing aids can be manipulated in real-time to improve experiences such as enjoyment of music for the hearing impaired. Later, this experience would prove invaluable in his work developing Enchroma."
Creating the lens started out as computer simulations, the company explains, "constructing sophisticated models that simulated colors and the extent of color vision deficiency. To create this model, Enchroma utilized the latest research on the genetics of color blindness and various anomalies related to photopigments, and linked these into a model where it gives the effect on how people with red or green color blindness perceive colors."
I recently asked Don McPherson a few questions about this amazing development in the science of vision:
How does it feel watching all the testimonials of people seeing more color for the first time? It must be very gratifying.
DM: For me the reveals 'reveal' something else. While watching I try to find unprompted moments where there are no contextual information. An example is seeing grass or trees as very green, stop signs as red, etc. Seeing the correct color on someone's shirt is more interesting to me than the others because there is no context wherein a shirt should be one color or another. Besides that the emotional aspect is amazing, and I definitely feel very proud of what has become of my little idea.
Do you by any chance know that many of the color blind men will have female relatives who are tetrachromats? This is true in my family.
DM: Testing for tetrachromacy is the issue. According to some vision science researchers only a handful worldwide have been definitively identified. Traditional tests, being designed by trichromatic usually do not have sufficient degrees of freedom to allow a tetrachromat to perform properly. In theory the female family members of CVD are the only candidate tetrachomats.
Does the company have plans to do contact lenses? Is that even possible?
DM: I developed a prototype lens early this year. We are working up to a product and expect to be able to offer next year.
And finally, a personal thank you. I purchased a pair and my loved one is wearing them all the time. He particularly enjoyed a recent trip to Fenway Park where he could see the grass so vividly for the first time.
DM: Thank you for the feedback. Baseball parks are amazing places with lots of bright colors. I can only imagine not seeing it and then seeing it vividly.
Here are more facts about CVD and Enchroma, courtesy of the company: