Color For The Colorblind Journalist: Exclusive Interview With EnChroma VP
Presented By Wingz – Scheduled Airport Rides
Imagine seeing the full visible spectrum of colors for the first time after living 20 years with colorblindness. It’s a breathtaking moment and very difficult to put into words, but that’s the experience I had after receiving colorblind correcting glasses from EnChroma’s Don McPherson. A Ph.D. in glass science and Vice President of the Berkeley based company, he and his team have developed glasses that restore color vision to those with mild to relatively severe colorblindness. The type I have is called “strong deutan,” where “green, brown, yellow, orange, and red may appear confusingly similar,” “blue and purple are easily confused,” and “pink can be very ‘muted’ so it looks essentially gray.” This condition pervades every element of life, from school, to driving, and even video games. After a lifetime of seeing only 2.5% of 1 million possible colors, just knowing about the possibility for correcting my colorblindness was extremely exciting.
After interviewing Don, I tried on a pair of EnChroma glasses in a beautiful flower garden. I couldn’t help but tear up because I was seeing entirely new colors all around me. Flowers burst with vibrancy. I could see all of the shades of green in leaf or on a tree for the first time. After leaving the garden I stared at the orange paint on a Toyota Tacoma for five minutes because I had never seen a color like it. The backpack belonging to a guy walking down the street was the most intense purple I had ever seen and I couldn’t help but stare as he walked past. During my drive back from Berkeley I was blown away by the uniqueness of traffic light green and how much the color of freeway signs stand out against everything around them. When I got home, the roses outside my house were absolutely stunning. To top it off, I could finally see the changes in the multicolored line that gives directions and tells the player when to brake in my favorite racing video game. It was an emotional day that I’ll remember forever.
Now I can’t wait to experience all of the colors I’ve been missing my entire life. With these glasses, I’ll be able to see the dazzling hues in parks, movies, video games, and art museums. EnChroma’s glasses are a huge technological advance for millions with colorblindness. As their products develop and the company grows, more people worldwide will have the ability to navigate the color coded world in which we live.
Here is the transcription of TechDrive’s exclusive interview with Enchroma VP, Don McPherson.
TechDrive: Hi Don. Could you talk about your role at EnChroma?
Don McPherson: My background is in material science. I have an undergraduate degree in math and art, a masters in ceramics, and Ph.D. in glass science. I studied glass formulation at Berkeley. I developed eyewear that surgeons could wear in the operating room, to protect their eyes from lasers. The eyewear also had other benefits that tended to saturate colors and make the world more pronounced. I started to wear them as sunglasses, and my colorblind friend borrowed them and said he could see colors. We held scientific clinical trials to from 2004 to 2009, and based on positive results, we started EnChroma in 2010. Andy and Tony Dykes started it together. We spent a few years perfecting the technology and launched in 2012.
TechDrive: What process led to the development of the product currently on the market? Are there any plans to lessen the tint on the glasses for more constant use?
McPherson: The ones we used in clinical trials were melted in our laboratory. We made them and ground them in a laborious process. We developed a model for human color vision and optimized the spectrum for different types of color deficiency. We looked around to see what other types of absorbing components and decided on stent film dielectrics. It’s very expensive and used in the space industry. It had some problems – but the problem was that it could only work with glass – and I love glass (McPherson laughs). We knew the main market was pediatrics, and the coating could only be put on the back side. Prescription is done using a puck, by carving the glass. In August we had a breakthrough. We could use polycarbonate dyes, and this let us put the functional coating on the front and move the product into the pediatric environment. We also felt a little uncomfortable having people use our glasses in sports because the lens could shatter. The cycle time for producing a new product has decreased greatly. We can offer a lighter sunglass for outdoor activities and we offer an indoor product for school activities.
TechDrive: The type of colorblindness I have is strong deutan, how great is my disadvantage compared to people with “normal vision?”
McPherson: You can group it into a couple of major areas. One is safety. So much is color coded. You can’t be a first responder, fly a plane, or a train engineer. Some countries won’t let you become an engineer. A guy contacted us who was an air force colonel and the guy was a colorblind. He was a really sharp guy and found a way to game the entrance test. He managed to do this and now that he has the glasses he’s going around the world as an unofficial spokesman for EnChroma (McPherson laughs).
Anyway, driving at night is dangerous, because with certain blinking lights they can’t tell red from yellow. Their other sensors kick in, but everything is contextual. You can’t tell the curb colors and they get washed out. Those are trivial examples, they’re aesthetics – what you’re missing in the world. I was walking past a garden only two blocks from our lab and the spectrum of colors was incredible. I put the glasses on and was blown away.
I told a color scientist at UC Davis about our glasses, and Billy it was so funny, he was walking up and touching people’s clothing, totally inappropriate, and yelling “It’s so red!” when he tried them on during a pickup soccer game.
(McPherson gets back on topic) We’ve evolved to tell the difference between the colors in trees. In language so much of description has to do with color. After John Galpin analyzed his colorblindness, top scientists became very interested in the subject, and began with color naming. They eventually moved on to other tests, but color naming is still a very complex area of study. So yeah, the three disadvantages can be grouped as aesthetic, lifestyle enjoyment and safety.
An example is in the workplace. We have new guy that we test products on. He said, “I can look across the room and see which servers are done.” They have tiny LEDs that tell whether they’re up or down. He had to look at his computer before to check their status, but now he can tell just by looking. He’s also been wearing his normal polarized sunglasses when he sails, but he’s noticed some long term improvement of his vision after having used EnChroma for a really long time. He can now see the green harbor light as opposed to a sea of white light, no pun intended (McPherson laughs). We’ve heard it from enough people that we know this is real. It’s a whole new area of science.
TechDrive: What steps are you taking toward impacting the lives of the 300 million humans with color deficiency? Are steps being taken to make the tech more accessible?
McPherson: Yep, that’s my research. Originally it cost $700. The original material was glass with dielectric coating. Originally we put $100 into every glass and with breakage and flaws we had to lower.
New glasses are dropped down to $300-$400 range. We are currently developing radically new technology for creating the productive that we should have ready by the end of summer. We’re looking to increase productivity. Every day we struggle to keep up with the orders and every day we fall farther behind. If I was color deficient I would get a pair but wish they weren’t so expensive. We’re going to start buying labs for the eyewear. The labs would stock thousands of pairs, and then we could apply the raw materials. The benefit is that the labs would push heavily in our favor. It’s the nature of the beast that we have to involve insurance to get the cost really low. If we get the prescription in we can get them to cover some portion of it. It’s considered a disability so we’re trying to get that covered. Only 11 states test for colorblindness, so what happens when students can’t see the colors on the whiteboard or the overhead? We’re letting 8% of kids fall behind. I know it sounds like I’m trumpeting EnChroma but I actually find this very disturbing.
Tech Drive: How are you planning on developing the product further? Can it be downsized to contact lenses?
McPherson: Contact lenses are possible but we’re still working and thinking about it. There are some issues and one of the problems is that the lead time for development is 4-5 years. Any time you bring a new product into contact with the eye you have to go through the long process of cutting through red tape. In theory we could do this, it would be great.
The original modern day solution for color deficiency was a product released in the 60s that was a single red contact lens worn over the left eye. It created a great deal of difference from the signals to the left and right eye. Certain objects would jump at you. Because of that some colors would look different, even red and green. But your depth perception would be affected and you couldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery.
You just gave me an idea, because this would establish a precedent for a tinted contact lens. Not everyone likes to wear glasses.
TechDrive: Are clear glasses possible?
McPherson: The short answer is no. But our product is a very light tint, a grey/ light blue color. When you wear it you adapt very quickly. Mostly by dilating slightly the adaptation is quick. The indoor product is quite light. 60-70%. The lens has to absorb some wavelengths. The arrangement of the three coda pigments in the eye. Blue is the first photo pigment, and green and red were later additions, and overlap each other a great bit even in normal vision. You can imagine bell curves with similar peak intensity. How much red minus how much green to determine red/greenness. In the most severe cases they almost completely cancel out. So as long as there’s some difference, we can fix it. We’re like a spectral scalpel that creates a difference between the pigments and we restore that separation. There is 100% agreement in the scientific community that color deficiency occurs at the retinal level, so the wiring is healthy as well as in the visual center in the brain. They need the correct stimulation to fire so they’ve been lying dormant. A way to visualize these neural mechanisms that work on a dipole system. They have a stimulation direction and an inhibition direction. It senses red and subdues the green. This mechanism is padlocked, and this padlock is in the eye. So that when you unlock it you see the full spectrum of color. The thing that makes all of our jobs interesting is watching this happen to someone try on the glasses for the first time and they ask “is that lavender.” We have to take out some of the light to create the separation. If the mechanism doesn’t fire, you just perceive the red of the strawberries and the leaves as the same.
As a colorblind person, this interview was extremely eye opening (get it?), and I was impressed by McPherson’s knowledge and passion. When I visited the EnChroma office in Berkeley, the team excitedly set me up with both a pair of indoor and outdoor glasses, and as they handed over the glasses, McPherson remarked how amazing it was that the more they give away glasses, the better their business gets. I for one was blown away with how well EnChroma’s product works, and I recommend it highly to any colorblind person. Fortunately for those who wear glasses, insurance companies are beginning to include EnChroma’s glasses in their plans, meaning that they will soon become even more accessible to the public.
Keep your eye trained on this company; it’s going to brighten up the lives of the millions of colorblind people around the world.