Wearable technology is proving to be hugely beneficial to people with a variety of disabilities and health conditions.
In Berkeley, a group of engineers is developing smart sunglasses that can help color-blind people identify and better discriminate between colors. The startup, called EnChroma, initially received funding for its research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
It’s a huge potential market. According to the website We Are Colorblind, around 8 percent of the male population of the planet is color blind.
For some color-blind people, driving is challenging, as it can be difficult to discern between a red and green traffic light. Former New York Times writer David Pogue is color blind and gave the glasses a try. Pogue doesn’t have any trouble driving, but doesn’t see deep greens and reds.
“Yards full of leafy trees and plants suddenly had different shades of green. Everywhere I looked, desaturated or barely discernible red things were popping,” wrote Pogue. “There was a weird sensation of seeing red and green areas in the periphery of my vision.”
According to a company spokesperson, color-blind wearers of Enchroma’s smart “Cx Explorer” glasses experience up to a 30 percent improvement in ability to identify colors and a 70 percent improvement in color discrimination.
The sunglasses are designed to be worn outdoors in bright light — not artificial light. The company wouldn’t advise wearing them at work, to read, or watch videos on a computer screen.
In an email interview, cofounders Don McPherson and Tony Dykes detailed how EnChroma’s technology rivals other products. According to the founders, most products on the market will use strongly tinted red and magenta lenses.
“A side effect is that these aids distort your overall perception of color, completely eliminating some colors and flattening out your depth perception,” the company wrote to me. “They also look rather silly.”
Meanwhile, EnChroma uses a mathematical formula to directly communicate with the brain’s visual system. This system is calculated to help a color-blind person observe the correct ratios the brain needs for normal color vision. The company uses over 100 reflective coatings at different opacities rather than a single tinted lens.
McPherson, a material sciences expert, initially had the idea for the technology when making very expensive glass laser-protective eyewear. These glasses would sell to hospitals for $1,600 a pop. McPherson consistently received reorders, as the glasses would be stolen by the surgeons to wear as normal sunglasses. He began wearing them too and noticed at a frisbee game that he could see orange cones for the first time.
After noticing he was color blind, McPherson began working on a prototype for others like him. EnChroma’s Explorer glasses are available for a more affordable (but still heart-skipping) $600.
EnChroma has raised $1.3 million from angel investors and the NIH to date. The company plans to raise about $2 to $4 million in February from venture capitalists. The goal is to use the same technology to benefit people with a variety of vision problems.
To see the glasses in action, check out the video from ABC’s San Francisco affiliate. You can also order a pair to try — there’s a 30 day money-back guarantee.