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Berkeley-based eyewear manufacturer, EnChroma, has developed tinted glasses that help people with red-green color blindness see red and green more vibrantly. These glasses are currently on the market for a few hundred bucks. EnChroma also makes a line of tinted glasses for people without vision impairment in order to enhance everyday color vision. Apparently, EnChroma lenses make colors “pop.”
What Is Color Blindness?
Color blindness is considered a mild disability. However, for some people, the disability can seriously inhibit job performance. For instance, many people with red-green color blindness are unable to become commercial airline pilots, physicians with color blindness have trouble differentiating blood from bile, and color blind chefs have trouble telling whether meat is cooked.
Ninety-nine percent of people (mostly men) who are color blind have a problem with their red and green cones. Cones are photoreceptor cells located at the back of your eye in a layer of cells called the retina. Cones transmit color information to the visual-processing center in the back of the brain (occipital lobe). There are 3 types of cones: red, blue and green. The vast majority of people have no problem seeing blue or yellow.
In most people who are color blind, the wavelengths at which the red and green cones absorb information overlap. Depending on the increased degree of overlap, the ability for a person with red-green color blindness to differentiate color decreases. Thus, people who are color blind appreciate a diminished spectrum of color. About 75 percent of people who are red-green color blind are green deficient, and the rest are red deficient. Very few color blind people have the complete inability to see red or green.
Depending on the type of red-green color blindness, people have trouble seeing shades of red or green, oranges, browns, pinks, purples, greys, and even black. Eyewear maker, EnChroma, has developed eyeglasses which to a limited extent dial up the contrast of red and green and make these colors more vibrant and better discernible.
How Do EnChroma Lenses Work?
EnChroma is a tinted plastic lens which is coated in about 100 layers of dielectric material. This material filters out and reflects some of the wavelengths that overlap in red-green color blindness. Using multi-notch filters, EnChroma lenses effectively drive a wedge in areas of optic interference in order to enhance the perception of reds and greens. In this way, EnChroma lenses make reds and greens and colors containing reds and greens more vibrant.
Unfortunately, EnChroma is no cure for color blindness and has its disadvantages. First, like prescription glasses, EnChroma is an optical device and not a permanent fix. Second, EnChroma lenses don’t improve global color contrast to the degree that a person could pass a color blindness test (the Ishihara test). Sure, if you’re color blind, you may better appreciate the orange traffic cone or lavender flower as more vibrant and get a taste of what it’s like to truly appreciate colors with red and green undertones. You may even be able to guess that these colors are orange and lavender. But, unfortunately, EnChroma’s effects won’t greatly improve day-to-day functioning. Third, EnChroma, like any pair of glasses, alters the vision in a global sense, and this global effect hinders any improvement in overall contrast. Fourth, EnChroma needs 30 minutes to take full effect.
In addition to EnChroma, other manufacturers are also working on other lenses and software that will help people with color blindness differentiate color. We’re still far, however, from the best solution. A solution that will help people with all types of color blindness, works immediately and selectively and adds a lot of contrast. In the meantime, if you or a loved one has red-green color blindness—or just want a pair of sunglasses that increases color vibrance—you may want to check out EnChroma lenses.
Theory of mind is the ability to know that how you perceive the world is not how everyone else does. Most people develop the theory of mind when they’re about three years old. I think I was eight. It was Easter and a great egg hunt was afoot. By the end of the hunt, my basket was empty—I had utterly failed to find the green eggs (my assigned color) upon the green grass, even with people pointing them out to me.
Everyone laughed and laughed, and on that day I learned that I was partially color blind… well, that day, combined with a few in-school Ishihara tests (the ones where you identify colored objects or numbers within a field of dots), and a trip to the eye doctor. Where the rest of the world sees vivid greens and brilliant reds, I see something else, a more blurry and muted version of both colors. So when I heard that there are spectacles that might help me see the way other people do, I really wanted to try them out.
They’re called EnChroma. You’ve probably seen some videos of people bursting into tears after putting on a pair. However, before I could join the uber-manly-tears-crying club, I needed to find out more about these glasses and my own color blindness.
What causes color blindness?
Color blindness is typically a genetic condition that affects around eight percent of men and one percent of women. According to the National Eye Institute, brain trauma and certain diseases can also cause color blindness. I think I fall into the “it’s genetic” category because I don’t recall getting hit in the head really hard at a kid. (Although I do recall my father kicking me in the face once trying to teach me to play soccer, which is why I became a swimmer… but I digress.)
It’s likely that I was born with malformed cones in my eyes. Cones, along with rods, are the cells in your retina that allow you to perceive colors and shades. In my case, I can’t discern variations of color along the red-green spectrum. While I do see red and green, I don’t see what most people see. I know this from those Ishihara tests and examples that crop up in day-to-day life, like playing board games and commenting on red and green objects.
How do EnChroma glasses work?
When people with typical color vision view the world, they are able to distinctly see red, green, blue, and yellow. For people like me, our perception of red and green overlap. What the glasses try to do block out the overlapping wavelengths of light to make each color more distinct.
So EnChroma glasses don’t cure color blindness; they’re more of an assistive tool. They also don’t work for everyone. EnChroma estimates that about 80 percent of people with red-green blindness will see some improvement. The 20 percent for whom they don’t work are either dichromats (where the cones in the eyes are physically missing or damaged) or the overlap between their red and green cones in their eyes is too extreme for the glasses to have any effect.
If you’re curious whether EnChroma glasses might be useful to you, you should take this two-minute test, very similar in look to a sequence of Ishihara images, to determine how you perceive color.
Do EnChroma glasses work?
Being a scientist, I’d prefer to first tell you about the tests we did to determine the efficacy of these glasses. But I know you want to know right now if I fell among the ranks of the teary YouTubers, seeing the red roses and green grass in their full and accurate glory for the first time ever.
I am pleased to report that, yes, I noticed a change, though not in so dramatically or emotionally a fashion as those videos depict. I did not cry, despite all the sand and diced onions I threw my face to make that juicy, juicy Tik Tok video.
On the other hand, the two other participants—fraternal twin brothers—who we recruited with the same deutan color blindness that I have, got headaches and did not notice any change in their color perception. (It’s unknown if the medical causes of their color blindness falls into categories of the 20 percent whom EnChroma says the glasses cannot help.)
The amount of time it takes for any given user to get acclimated to the glasses varies, but most people do not experience the instantaneous change in color perception shown during those viral videos. From the time I first put the glasses on, it took about 40 minutes for me to fully take in what was happening. EnChroma told us that it takes time for your eyes to acclimate to the glasses, and over time the effect would become more instant, which was the case for me. The EnChromas made reds and oranges in particular appear much more vivid to me. It was like someone had pulled the vibrance slider in Photoshop all the way to the right.
How we lab-tested the EnChroma glasses
Now, for the science-y part. I received multiple pairs of EnChroma glasses from the company, including outdoor, indoor, and wraparound models. To put them to the test, Reviewed’s senior scientist Dr. Julia MacDougall and I devised several stages of testing. The first, as noted, was to distribute the glasses among myself and our two other test subjects to see if the glasses worked and if they were comfortable to wear.
We then moved onto more nitty-gritty testing. We first considered having me take an Ishihara test wearing the glasses to determine if I could pass. However, EnChroma says that these glasses will not help in that regard; the Ishihara test uses simulated colors that do not correspond to real-world vision conditions, and because it is a screening test, it can only be used to detect the existence of a color vision deficiency and cannot measure color vision improvement. I did it anyway, and got marginally better results. Unassisted, I couldn’t see any numbers or patterns, but while wearing the glasses, I could figure out that at least something was hidden in those dots.
It should also be noted that, because EnChroma outdoor glasses are optimized to work in natural daylight, EnChroma does not recommend the use of these glasses with screens, which are lit by LEDs. The colored light emitted by digital displays (such as those on phones, TVs, and computer screens) is different enough from the natural light that the EnChroma outdoor glasses are designed for, and may cause users to perceive a color imbalance on the display—computers and TV screens are often miscalibrated and frequently don’t emit enough light for our eyes to detect all the color wavelengths.
Still, EnChroma makes glasses specifically for indoor use, and chances are that people wearing the indoor version of the EnChroma glasses are going to be staring at their devices a lot, just like everyone else does. For our test, Julia set up a series of LED lights that emitted specific wavelengths of light and had us color-blind testers arrange them according to shade. In this test, I fared marginally better with the glasses than without. However, my score with EnChroma came close to that of our on-staff photographer, who has near-perfect color vision.
Finally, to determine that I was, in fact, seeing red and green correctly while wearing the glasses after I’d acclimated to them, we moved onto a test where I tried to identify the color of rubber balls. They were presented to me at random throughout the day, so I had to stop what I was doing, put on the glasses, and call out a color. I also did marginally better identifying the colors of these rubber balls while wearing the glasses than not.
Would I recommend EnChroma glasses?
The major drawback of the EnChroma glasses is the price: They cost more than $300 per pair. However, there’s a 60-day return policy (with a $50 restocking fee if you purchased cheaper refurbished glasses from the EnChroma site), so you don’t have a whole lot to lose if you want to give them a try. As noted, I experienced a marginal improvement in my color vision. Through these glasses, my world looked more distinct, but not more beautiful. At no point in my time with the EnChromas did I think that they were adding more “realness” to what I was seeing. When I took them off, I didn’t feel like something had gone missing. However, all of our testing and research show that these glasses work as advertised, for those they work for.
That said, experiencing the outdoors while wearing them was a highlight for me. The company’s outdoor versions offer UV protection and tinted lenses (like sunglasses). If they work for you, these glasses are worth it to enjoy the bounty of nature’s beauty. In fact, I might go back to my old house to find those green Easter eggs…