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Seeing color for the first time: These high-tech lenses can fix color blindness

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These high-tech lenses can fix color blindness

One in twelve men and one in 200 women have some form of color vision deficiency. There are different types of colorblindness but a common issue is distinguishing between red and green. The iconic blue color of Facebook was chosen by Mark Zuckerberg because he has red-green color blindness. Berkeley, CA-based EnChroma accidentally found a fix that can help people see more color.

It started more than a decade ago when glass scientist Dr. Don McPherson was making protective glasses for laser surgery. He learned that the surgeons were actually stealing the glasses from the operating room and using them as sunglasses. When he tried a pair out for himself, he noticed the world looked more colorful. He has normal color vision, but he didn't learn they could help color deficient people until a friend tried them on at an ultimate Frisbee game.

"My friend borrowed my glasses and said, this is a quote, 'Dude I can see the cones!' and he was referring to the fluorescent orange marker cones that define the field," said Don McPherson, now the chief scientist at EnChroma.

Being unable to see orange cones on green grass, is common for red-green colorblind people.

"It turned out that one of the unintended consequences of the technology I developed is that it also absorbs some other wavelengths that benefit people who are color deficient," McPherson said.

The creator of EnChroma, Don McPherson, says he wears the glasses everyday even though he has normal color vision. He said they turn up the saturation of the world.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC

So he got a grant from the National Institute of Health and after years of research and clinical trials, he teamed up with Andrew Schmeder and they co-founded EnChroma in 2010.

The company has since sold nearly 30,000 sunglasses and indoor glasses to people around the world. A pair cost about $300 and up depending on whether a prescription is added.

There are countless unsolicited videos on YouTube where users are trying on the glasses and seeing color for the first time. Many people are moved to tears as they see the vibrant world around them. The company said it could take several minutes for the effects to kick in, but when Berkeley software developer Farhan Sareshwala tried the glasses on for the first time, the change in his vision hit him immediately.

"I think understanding what you were missing before is the most important part," Sareshwala said. "My favorite color used to be blue. Now it's red without a doubt. Red it is just such an intense and wonderful color."

EnChroma sells glasses for outside and inside and they have a variety of frames to choose from.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC

But the glasses do not work for every type of color deficiency. Only about 80 percent of users notice a difference. So what about the other 20 percent?

"Unfortunately we can't do anything to help them currently," McPherson said. "What's bad about that is that they're the ones most in need of an expanded color palette."

EnChroma is working on new technology to help all types of color deficiencies. McPherson said they are also in the process of developing contact lenses.

EnChroma CEO Andrew Schmeder said the company has partnered with L'Oreal, 1-800-Flowers and Valspar Paint to help get the word out. And they are in the process of getting more optometrists on board to sell the glasses, which has taken some convincing.

"[Optometrists] have been trained that there's nothing you can do to help someone who is color deficient," McPherson said, "But once they get a lot of feedback from patients and from other doctors, there has been a shift. And we can feel that there's less suspicion and less disbelief and more acceptance"

Farhan Sareshwala’s new favorite color is red now that he has EnChroma glasses.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC

Dr. Michael Le, an optometrist at Palo Alto Vision Optometry said that he was one of those skeptics, at first. But after watching patients see positive results, he has changed his tune and the practice now sells the glasses.

"It doesn't work for everyone but it's really encouraging to see when it does work. Patients get so exited," Dr. Le said in a phone interview. "The technology is still in the very early stages, but I am excited to see what EnChroma can do in the future."