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10 September 2015updated 07 Oct 2015 11:26am

These glasses let colourblind people see colours for the first time

EnChroma, a US company, has created lenses which (they claim) bring colour to the colourblind. But do they work, and if so, how?

By Barbara Speed

The other day, I came across a YouTube video, titled “Seeing color for the first time”.  In it, a man gives his friends a pair of glasses, which he tries on and then exclaims “I can read your shirt!” to the cameraman, and “Oh my god, your hair’s purple!” to another friend. 

Here it is in full:

 

The recipient of the glasses suffers from colourblindness, and, in the video, effectively sees blues and purples properly for the first time. The video, and the many like it floating around on YouTube, make the glasses look like a revelation – the equivalent to cochlear implants for the aurally impaired, minus the requirement to insert something into your head. 

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But how do they work? And so they really restore sufferers’ ability to see colour?

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The glasses are the work of California-based company EnChroma, which received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the “feasibility of enhancing colour vision in humans”. The first thing to know is that the glasses actually enhance colour for everyone – dull tones pop into brightness, and rainbows and sunset look hyper-real. EnChroma provides this image of a canal as an example of the glasses’ effects on non-impaired eyes:

Most importantly, of course, the glasses enhance colour for people with colour blindness (also called colour vision deficiency), a condition that affects around 300 million people around the world. It’s far more common in men, and can be either genetic or caused by disesases like diabetes or multiple sclerosis. These images from the Colourblind Awarenss Organisation show how the world appears to someone with Tritanopia, one form of colourblindness which makes the sufferer confuse greens and blues: 

(If you think you might be colourblind,you can take this fun test test on Enchroma’s website to find out.)

Colourblindness occurs because the molecules in the eyes which absorb light and differentiate colour, known as “photopigments”, overlap with one another. This obstructs your ability to differentiate between, say, green and red.

The EnChroma glasses, meanwhile, are designed to “drive a wedge” between the different colour signals, improving your ability to differentiate between the colours, which means your brain finds them easier to identify. 

This means that, as the company states on its website, the glasses do not constitute a cure for coloublindess – rather, they act as an “optical assistive device”. Seth Porges at Forbes, who suffers from red-green colourblindness, tried the glasses out, and confirmed that they did allow him to see the redness of a brick wall for the first time. However, he still failed colourblindness tests whilst wearing them, confirming that while the glasses enhance your ability to see colour, they can’t totally reinstate it. 

The glasses come in sunglass or eyeglass forms (though the videos suggest that the sunglass models tend to work better). They aren’t cheap: standard lenses to fit to your existing frames cost $350, while standalone specs cost anwhere between $350 and $700. As it stands, they’re effectively a luxury item, and aren’t available through the NHS or US health insurance plans. 

The plethora of emotional unboxing videos, meanwhile, is the result of a marketing campaign by EnChroma, which suggests users film themselves trying the glasses out for the first time. 

For most, though, the steep price tag is clearly worth it – this colourblind YouTube user notes in his video description that the heightened experience of seeing colours was “highly emotional for me” (he appears to start crying about halfway through):

And this colourblind child is clearly more than satisfied with his pair (“Everything looks how it’s supposed to!”):

As with all new technologies, this is, presumably, just the beginning – hopefully the lenses will only become cheaper and more accessible with time.