Inside EnChroma Glasses’ Powerful Effects on the Colorblind

Posted by on June 27, 2016 9:25 pm
Categories: Blender

Inside EnChroma Glasses’ Powerful Effects on the Colorblind

People with red-green colorblindness can suddenly discriminate between colors they couldn’t see before.

Two colorblind brothers, Jimmy and Jace, were in for a surprise when their parents bought them a new pair of glasses. Jimmy’s dad was holding a handful of balloons, asking his son to name the colors. “Orange?” Jimmy answered. “It’s green,” his father replied.

Jimmy was then handed a pair of colorblindness-fixing glasses from EnChroma while onlookers held up balloons and a boldly-colored beach towel. As seen in this heartwarming video, Jimmy was moved to tears. He handed the glasses off to his brother Jace, who was similarly overwhelmed. “It’s so bright,” he said.

They might look like sunglasses, but EnChroma’s product actually boosts the saturation of red and green light. That helps to improve color vision in people with red-green color blindness, the most common color vision deficiency, affecting up to 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women (a true lack of color vision is very rare).

Most people have three types of color-sensing cones in their eyes: red, green, and blue. The wavelengths of light that these three cones absorb have overlapping regions. Color blindness is often a result of a malfunctioning cone that causes wavelengths to overlap even more, resulting in poor color discrimination. The EnChroma glasses use a filter to cut out these overlapping wavelengths of light, allowing for a clearer distinction between colors, especially red and green.

The invention was derived from the work of Don McPherson, who earned his PhD in glass science at Alfred University. McPherson was trying to design protective eyewear for doctors performing laser surgeries. It wasn’t until he let a friend try on the glasses during an ultimate frisbee game that he realized the technology’s true potential. McPherson’s friend just happened to be colorblind, and the glasses gave both of them a shock.

That serendipity led to NIH-funded research for helping the colorblind. Early versions of the glasses were unsatisfactory, so McPherson began working with mathematician and computer scientist Andrew Schmeder, to help optimize the glasses. In 2010, they co-founded EnChroma, with the first pair of glasses released in 2012. EnChroma’s glasses cost around $269 for children, and $349 for adults.

EnChroma’s website makes it clear that their glasses will not cure color blindness, much like reading glasses won’t cure farsightedness. But a true cure could someday come in the form of gene therapy, where doctors would insert genes malfunctioning cone into the retina. Jay Neitz, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington, demonstrated the feasibility of this idea in monkeys back in 2009. And last year he teamed up with Avalanche Biotechnologies to try to move this technology into clinical trials.

Another caveat with EnChroma ‘s glasses is that they are not recommended for color vision proficiency tests required of certain jobs, including operating ships, planes, and public transportation. This stands in contrast to one of their competitors, the ColorCorrection System, which calls itself “the world’s only guaranteed color blind treatment that can ensure a passage of the Ishihara Color Test,” one of the most common color vision tests.

EnChroma is careful to avoid making such claims, but it also highlights the limited use of the product. Some people may find the price tag unjustifiable, but for others the dramatic effects are more than worth it.

(Read more: New York Times, NPR, “Color-Blind Monkeys Get Full Color Vision”)

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