Enchroma

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Colour for the colour blind

Written by
Stephen Baldwin


People
Andy Schmeder, co-founder and CEO

Process
Computer modelling and field testing of everyday light sources  

Product
Sunglasses with colour-correcting lenses


Despite the issue affecting roughly 300 million people (most of them men), there has been little in the way of potential cures or corrective measures for colour vision deficiency (CVD).

Scientist Don McPherson and mathematician Andy Schmeder have taken an ambitious crack at the issue with Enchroma, a company that makes sunglasses that can improve 80% of colour blindness cases.

When light enters the eye, blue, green, and red photopigments are activated. For someone with normal vision, the green and red photopigments overlap, but that overlap is more pronounced among colour-blind people, making different hues indistinguishable.

We drove all over Berkeley looking for different kinds of stop lights, and would park and watch the lights change for an hour with different glasses we had designed.

McPherson had no intention of solving this problem when he first created the lenses. His aim was to develop special eyewear to protect doctors’ eyes from lasers during surgery.

One afternoon, he wore the special glasses during a game of ultimate frisbee. When a friend with CVD asked if he could try them out, he saw colours he’d never seen before. McPherson got to work soon after to understand how this could be, enlisting the help of Schmeder to develop computer models that simulated wavelengths of light and colour vision deficiency.

Enchroma’s technology corrects the colour ratios by removing small slices of light where the red and green cones overlap the most. Perfecting this process took thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Schmeder says the manipulation of light had been used only in advanced optics for devices like telescopes and microscopes.

“These other application areas are highly controlled conditions where the spectral and spatial distribution of photons is precisely engineered,” he said. “But, when it comes to eyewear, we found early on that everything is much more complicated and messy. The world around us is full of different types of light — the human-built environment contains a staggering variety of both natural and artificial light, as well as myriad natural and artificial pigments imparting colour to the world. We had to learn, often through trial and error, how to make our products as effective as possible without unintended side effects.”

“In one of the first prototypes, it worked great in testing but caused fluorescent lighting to have an eerie pink glow,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Enchroma

“So you would walk by a high-rise office building and the whole thing would be glowing with a crazy pink halo — it was curious at first, but actually very distracting, and we had to fix it.”

Another involved certain types of traffic lights: “We drove all over Berkeley looking for different kinds of stop lights, and would park and watch the lights change for an hour with different glasses we had designed.”

They had to be extremely careful when considering changes and iterations. Schmeder says the early prototypes cost roughly US $20,000 each.

The cost dropped significantly when they were able to move from a glass lens to a polycarbonate (plastic) version, dropping the price from more than US $700 per pair to around $400.

While the company is still looking to improve its sunglasses, it has also moved on to a vision-correcting contact lens.

___

To find out more about Enchroma, visit enchroma.com

Stephen Baldwin

Stephen Baldwin is a Toronto-based writer and editor who has written for Toronto Life, Fortune, Report on Business magazine, and CBC.

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