How Technology Helps the Color Blind See a More Vibrant World

One of the interesting stories behind the beginnings of Facebook is how it got its color theme. In a 2010 profile in The New Yorkerfounder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged he is part of the eight percent of males who are colorblind. He learned this as an adult when he took an online test. As a result Facebook is all blue because as he says, “Blue is the richest color for me – I can see all of blue.”

Color blindness is a largely hereditary condition, though it can be caused by damage to the optic nerve due to trauma or disease. Red-green color blindness is the most common, in which people are unable to distinguish between the two colors. Due to mixed signals sent to the brain, reds can morph into certain hues of greens, and various hues of greens morph into yellows. It is also very difficult to differentiate colors that blend either of them, making pinks look gray or purples appear blue. The rarer blue-yellow color blindness causes similar confusion, with blue appearing green or yellows appearing pink. Total color blindness, meaning the absence of all color, is extremely rare and usually associated with light sensitivity and poor vision.

The color blindness trait is a defect of the X-chromosome and, therefore, can only be passed on by a mother who is a carrier. Approximately 32 million Americans are affected, with less than one percent of them female.

Since the 1800s, scientists have known that colored filters have been somewhat helpful for those suffering from color deficiencies. In recent years, advancements in technology have allowed the development of different products to fine tune this filtering. While there is no cure, there has been a great deal of advancement in assisting technology to make navigating the world a bit easier and more colorful for those who are afflicted.

There are smartphone apps for everyday tasks, such as distinguishing between a red and green apple. These apps help users identify colors by, for example, changing certain colors to patterns or filters colors into recognizable hues. Many video games also have a “color blind mode” that will morph certain colors into shapes.

In 2006, an evolutionary neurobiologist named Mark Changizi theorized that color vision in humans developed so that we could see changes in skin coloring, such as redness from blushing or paleness for illness, in order to pick up on social cues, emotions and physical states of others. In 2012, an Idaho-based technology startup created glasses called O2Amps based on Changizi’s theory. The glasses visually enhance oxygenated blood and blood pooling (i.e. bruising) on the skin. In trials, the glasses helped medical personnel identify veins easier, as well as trauma and bruising to the skin invisible to the naked eye.

In an unexpected twist, it also helped with red-green color blindness.

Volunteers who suffered from color blindness, which is identified via testing, were asked to use the glasses. Color deficiency testing involves colored circles and dots in patterns which are easily recognizable for those with normal vision. Users reported getting a perfect score using the glasses after failing the test without them. The lenses do have an unintended side effect of interfering with blue-green perception, however.

While the O2Amps are currently being used for medical purposes, another company has created sunglasses available to the public.

With a research grant from the National Institutes of Health, a Berkeley, California startup developed technology that can precisely filter wavelengths of light through specially coated lenses. Ten years of study led them to creating a computer model that would amplify color signal wavelengths to the brain. The light-sensitive nerve cells in the eye – called cone cells – filter colors into categories of blue, red and green. Most with normal vision can see about one million unique shades of color. People with red-green color blindness can see between 10,000 to 100,000 shades.

The scientists at EnChroma have now been able to create consumer wearable eyewear that can help those with color deficiencies see with more vibrancy and greater range. As the company explains, “By removing the wavelengths of light where overlap is occurring between the red and green cone cells, the spectral shift can be reversed, amplifying the color signal sent to the brain. The result is that colors appear to be brighter and more pure. Thousands more shades can be seen. Colors can be recognized more quickly and with less confusion.”

The technology is only available in sunglasses form, but they are developing their line to include prescription lenses and a line for children. The pricing is in line with many prescription sunglasses, starting from $350. However, the glasses are more than a fashion statement for those who need them. For 60-year-old Sheila Carter, it has changed her world. As she told the San Francisco Gate, “Sunsets are amazing. I always knew you could see the gold ball of the sun. I didn’t know gold streaks ran out horizontally from the sun. I didn’t realize the whole landscape took on a different hue.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

65 comments

Sue H
Sue H27 days ago

Pretty amazing tech!

SEND
W. C.
W. C2 years ago

Thank you.

SEND
Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Magdalena J.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you!

SEND
4 years ago

Thank You !!!

SEND
Janet B.
Janet B4 years ago

Thanks

SEND
William Moorman
William Moorman4 years ago

Thank you

SEND
N. Jane Walker
N. Jane Walker4 years ago

Wow! Interesting and inspiring

SEND
Ana R
ANA MARIJA R4 years ago

Very interesting. Thank you for the article and some comments!:)

SEND
Deborah M.
Deborah M4 years ago

My former husband is colour blind. He developed coping methods over the years. The only time he was upset about the issue was when he enlisted in the Air Force hoping to become a pilot, colour blindness ended that dream and his second choice was electrical engineering. The Air Force again said no but once out of the service he proved the colour blindness did not interfere at all with being a darn good electrical engineer.

SEND