EnChroma co-founders Don McPherson, left, and Andy Schmeder wear the sunglasses they created.
EnChroma co-founders Don McPherson and Andy Schmeder invented a color-blind glass technology that works and began marketing the eyewear in 2013.
Joyce Watters grew up knowing that she was colorblind, but she didn’t really know what that meant. “It was always part of who I was,” said Watters. Her father is colorblind as well as two of her sisters. She adapted. “When I shopped for clothes, I would ask the sales person or whoever was nearby, ‘What color is this?’”
Two years ago, Watters responded to a call from Berkeley’s EnChroma to try the company’s glasses designed to enhance color vision. “We went to the Berkeley Bowl, and when I put on those glasses, it was a wild experience. The apples were really
red. The watermelons had shades of green and yellow. The oranges were so orange, the lemons so yellow. And the roses …” Watters paused as she started to get choked up describing the experience. “The roses were pink, not beige. It was beautiful.”
Approximately 13 million individuals in the United States have some degree of colorblindness, also called color vision deficiency. Colorblindness is inherited and runs in families. The X-linked trait is more common in men, affecting 8 percent of men and only 0.5 percent of women. Most individuals, 99 percent, are red-green colorblind, which means that the red- and green-specific cones cells in the retina of the eyes that interpret color for the brain overlap. This makes it difficult for the colorblind individual to distinguish red and green and associated colors like orange and pink; and it leads to color confusion. Plus the colorblind see a highly limited range of color shades, 10,000 to 100,000 in contrast to the noncolorblind who see between one to seven million different hues. The colorblind world is more muted, monochromatic, and dull. These individuals see with less detail, contrast, and depth perception, which can make everyday tasks — like picking fresh produce, cooking red meat, reading maps, or choosing clothes — difficult.
EnChroma co-founders Don McPherson and Andy Schmeder invented the colorblind glass technology and began marketing the eyewear in 2013. But it all started with a fortuitous discovery years earlier. McPherson, an artist with a Ph.D. in glass science, had designed protective eyewear for surgeons doing laser surgery. Soon he found the surgeons were wearing those glasses outside the operating suite, so McPherson tried the eyewear as sunglasses, too. One day, at an Ultimate frisbee match, McPherson let a buddy try the glasses on, and his response was immediate and ecstatic. His friend could see the fluorescent orange cones on the green field for the first time. A light bulb went off for McPherson — his friend was colorblind, and the glasses filtered out certain wavelengths of light that enabled him to better differentiate colors like red, green, brown, and orange. From there, McPherson applied for an NIH grant to study the glass and colorblindness and a couple years later partnered with Schmeder, a mathematician, who created an algorithm to test how the filter worked and best target color deficiency.
McPherson and Schmeder benefitted from another fortuitous event. People started posting videos of colorblind individuals trying the EnChroma glasses for the first time. The videos of their reactions — first amazement and awe at what they were able to see, followed by big smiles, overwhelming emotion, and often tears — went viral, and EnChroma’s sales spiked. “We are giving people the experience of seeing colors for the first time. You see it on the videos, and I’ve witnessed it. It gives me chills,” said McPherson.
Oakland resident Brian Blau learned that he was colorblind in high school when he took a color vision test at an exhibit on a visit to a science center. Not all schools test for colorblindness, and colorblind individuals may go into adulthood without knowing. A friend told Blau about EnChroma, and he went to visit the company to test the eyewear. “I walked outside and looked at the flower bed by the door, and I could see colors I had never seen before. Greens were more vivid with many more shades,” said Blau adding, “Then a FedEx truck drove by, and I realized the logo was purple and red. I never knew that.” He’s been wearing EnChroma glasses nonstop and is on his second pair, prescription lenses.
EnChroma eyewear is available in 200 U.S. optic retailers around, but the majority of sales are online. You can take a color vision test at the EnChroma website (EnChroma.com) to determine if you have colorblindness and how likely the glasses are to help. The lenses enhance color vision in about 80 percent of users who are red-green colorblind. Indoor and outdoor lenses are available, but EnChroma recommends starting with sunglasses, because the color improvement is greatest with outdoor light. The sunglasses provide UV protection, come in 14 styles (plastic, wire, tortoiseshell, black, brown) and cost abput $350.
Blau noted that he knows he still can’t see all the colors that a noncolorblind person sees, but the glasses make a significant difference. EnChroma glasses are not a “cure” for colorblindness and do not provide 100 percent color vision. For Blau it’s like stopping to smell the roses. “I thought about what my life had been like, what I hadn’t seen for all those years. It’s normalized now, but I still stop and think about it every now and then and appreciate what I’m seeing.”