Heightening the Contrast
Andy Schmeder, Enchroma glasses, and the World of Colorblindness
Andy Schmeder is the CTO of Enchroma. We called him to talk about their forthcoming product, the Enchroma, a set of lenses that helps with colorblindness and color vision in general.
A bit of medical background, here, for the layman. I am at best an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to medicine, and Andy is something of a technical rather than medical person. But the essential problem works like this- the eye has a number of receptors for color in red, green, and blue. For the most common type of colorblindness, red-green colorblindness, there is a sensitivity across those types of neurons that causes them both to fire when contacted by certain frequencies of light. This causes the brain to incorrectly perceive the color – although how that is perceived is different depending on the individual. Enchroma works by filtering out the frequencies of light that most commonly cause this kind of overlap, allowing the brain to perceive color more easily. (This is a gross oversimplification, the interested should peruse this article which while still not exactly optometry is a little more professional.)
Andy got his start working with sensory augmentation working in the research labs for UC Berkeley. He actually began with hearing aids, and although he has normal hearing he got fitted for them as part of a project to try to help hearing-impaired people with a quality of life project- one focused on improving their ability to hear music. “Hearing aids are all about intelligibility, spoken words. It’s not the right kind of hearing for music,” he explained. Part of his research involved finding out what kind and when people listened to music- mostly country and classical, and mostly in their cars, much to my disappointment (I was holding out hope for a contingent of hearing impaired metalheads, perhaps casualties of club sound systems in the 90s.). During this time he met Dr. Don McPherson, who would go on to found Enchroma years later, and they would work together off and on.
There were some interesting sociological effects that Andy noted. Men are much more likely to be afflicted by colorblindness than women, and some 1 in 12 men have some form of it. This has an effect on society. “Men don’t talk about color,” he said, referencing in part a study by Paul Kay that found that men in many languages have limited color vocabularies. Given what we know about culture and color naming, this seemingly small detail might give us insight into more than just vision. Colorblindness colors everything from stop signs to gender roles.
The Enchroma vision is this: the lenses they design improve quality of life for colorblind people, and even appear to have some effect on normally sighted folks. (This is pretty hard to research, if you can imagine, without a lab.). They want to make these lenses “safe, non-obvious, and functional,” currently in the glasses format although more options are being researched. “Right now, people describe it as like an Instagram filter, but an immersive, whole world experience,” he said of Enchroma lenses, “and it seems to have an effect in about 80% of cases of individual colorblindness.”
Tech like the Enchroma has a real message for bodyhackers. Our limitations as humans, physical and mental, often have roots in our bodies. We are not all made perfectly, and even the healthiest of us have reminders of our frailty – turns out that even meat-software a couple billion years in the making has bugs (or is bugs) now and again. But in doing basic research and finding clever solutions to old problems, we are beginning to understand the solutions that are available, the answers that we can make happen.
There’s a lot of work yet to do. Formal study in neuroplasticity with the Enchroma is a ways off (although Andy says that he and most of the office wear theirs all the time, it’s pretty hard to study that without tossing people in an MRI.). New form factors and increased production volumes will cut costs considerably, and they’ve got more new innovation coming – and if history is any guide, instagram filters and visual enhancement will be a hell of a package to market. Keep an eye out for Enchroma at BodyHackingCon.