15.09.2014
Like all of the scattered recollections I can access from the earliest years of my life, the memory is fuzzy. In this moment, there’s confusion, embarrassment, and about as much self-doubt as this barely self-aware first grader is capable of. It is the first of several clues that I, like 13 million people in the US and an estimated 300 million worldwide according to The Atlantic, am colorblind.
That's why Don McPherson, co-founder of the Berkeley-based EnChroma, has spent the past five years of his life developing a technology to help colorblind individuals see the world the way he does—that is, in full color. It's a bold claim; scientists have known about the condition of colorblindness for the better part of two centuries.
EnChroma is not a new product, nor is it the only set of glasses aiming at colorblindness (see 2AI Labs, for instance). My journey begins after work one evening, sitting alone in my office and staring at my computer screen. In my case, a genetic glitch has caused the red and green sensing cones inside my eyes to overlap more than they do in the eyes of individuals with normal color vision. People like me may have trouble distinguishing between certain shades between green and brown, red and brown, and yellow and orange. So though I know that I will not pass this EnChroma test with flying colors, and though no one is around to witness any small victory I might claim, I am oddly competitive. After clicking through about 30 slides, I learn that I am a "moderate deutan" (pronounced "doo-tan"). I meet McPherson on a sunny day at a former mattress factory in an industrial area of South Berkeley. The anomaloscope, he says, was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by a German ophthalmologist by the name Willibald Nagel.
According to the EnChroma founder, James Clerk Maxwell designed the first pair of glasses to assist colorblind individuals in the mid-19th century. Maxwell's glasses and other similar innovations—aimed more at gaming color blindness tests and helping the color vision deficient avoid Dalton-esque faux pas—have remained "the status quo up until the present," McPherson says.
Before founding EnChroma, McPherson worked for a company called Bay Glass Research—putting his Ph.D. The first generation of protective eyewear these surgeons wore achieved its goal with thick, colored glass, which absorbed the powerful, eye-frying energy of the laser. McPherson solved this problem by infusing glass panels with rare earth metals, which worked a bit like the surgeons he was aiding—by precisely targeting specific bands of the spectrum. In 2005, the self-described "avid ultimate Frisbee player" was wearing his high-tech shades at an ultimate tournament in Santa Cruz. McPherson's friend was referring to the orange, sideline-deliniating cones, which, as color blind man, he had previously been unable to see.


My condition gets confirmed not long after with the help of a school nurse and an Ishihara color vision test—basically a circle made up of many more tiny circles, all of which are very similar in color. Aside from the aforementioned purple-sea debacle—and apart from once buying a pair of pink sunglasses that I truly believed to be gray and a purple shirt I was certain was blue—my condition hasn't impacted my life in any serious way. And now, whenever I'm unsure about the color of a garment or accessory, I make sure to quiz the clerk at the checkout counter to make sure whatever I'm buying is the color I think it is.
In the most serious forms of this condition, it can be downright dangerous to perform certain tasks like work as an electrician or drive a car.
Along with his business partner, Andrew Schmeder, McPherson claims to have created a lens that can correct for a number of types of color vision deficiencies—including the specific form I have.
However, while some have worked to develop tools to aid the color vision deficient, no one has produced a product that can offer people like me much more than a crude workaround. Founded in 2012, the company has been enjoying an increase in profile over the last year or so due to things like some viral marketing success and lower consumer pricing according to the New York Times. Today buying a pair of EnChroma glasses will be familiar to anyone who's jumped into the online frames world pioneered by companies like Warby Parker. I read the instructions on the EnChroma website before embarking on Ishihara's “hidden number” colorblindness test. To the uninitiated it can suggest a complete lack of color vision, but I don’t see in black and white. As such, scientists use the more precise term “color vision deficient” when speaking broadly about folks like me—folks born with dysfunctional color-sensing hardware. Pinks can appear gray, purple and blue get mixed up a lot, and the green light in a traffic signal may appear to be nothing more than bright white—the same color as the little man in the crosswalk sign.
In many cases, I’m ultimately unable to detect any semblance or gesture of a numeral hidden among the dots.
I am informed that as a moderate deutan, I will likely respond very positively to the technology at work in the EnChroma lens. He just received a new piece of equipment that he's been trying to get his hands on for some time—an anomaloscope, the most accurate tool available for determining the type and degree of an individual's color vision deficiency. Colorblindness has been around much longer, however, and the first description of the condition was recorded by John Dalton in 1798.
Far from correcting for any color vision deficiency, however, they were simply made up of three bands of glass—clear, green, and red. When I visited, for instance, McPherson was excited about finally getting his hands on an anomaloscope, the most accurate tool available for determining the type and degree of an individual's color vision deficiency.
However, those glasses gave the surgeons headaches and made it difficult for them to distinguish between the tan, pink, and red tones of human flesh. These glasses effectively deflected the dangerous wavelengths of the laser, while letting all other light pass through. McPherson soon got word that many of his clients were taking the shades home with them and using them as sunglasses.


And so, he made a pair for himself, inserting the customized glass panels into wrap-around Bolle frames, and unwittingly setting the stage for his a-ha moment.
McPherson knew this about his friend, and the news that his specialty glasses enabled him to see a color he had never seen before hit the EnChroma founder like a ton of bricks. He was lost in thought—considering the nature of color vision deficiency and what exactly these particular glasses might be doing that to corrected for his friend's condition. There is box of crayons, a wooden sailboat floating across the page, and a teacher’s loaded question.
They all have a number hidden among the dots, and folks like me have difficulty seeing some, or all, of those hidden numbers.
By blocking a discrete number of wavelengths, he says, the EnChroma lenses can help my eyes send a clearer, more precise signal to the color-processing centers of my brain.
While you can find them at some optometrist offices and retailers, EnChroma provides both an online storefront and an online evaluation for would-be customers to shop from home. I can still vaguely remember the school nurse holding up a series of cards just like these. Some people do (though that iteration of the condition is extremely rare), while others also labeled with color blindness see mostly in shades of blue and yellow. It is the most common form of the color blindness and accounts for 99 percent of all cases. Inside, workbenches are covered in panels of glass of various colors, a faded chart of the visible spectrum and a large poster of the periodic table of elements hang on one wall. These simply allowed the wearer to better determine the actual color of articles he or she was unsure of.
The physicians had little choice, they needed to rely on other visual cues during operation. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Conde Nast.
The frames run the gamut from roughly $250 to $450, and they come in various styles that may most closely resemble sunglasses.
In fact, McPherson says he stumbled upon the solution to providing the correct signal to color vision deficient eyes by accident.
While the company is still growing, EnChroma even offers a "Product Testing Program," where would-be wearers can apply to earn a free pair through participating in certain company initiatives (like talking to the media).



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