With a new pair of stylish shades, people with colorblindness are beginning to see the world just as the rest of us do. The corrective glasses were actually created as tools to detect blood oxygenation and flow beneath the surface of the skin. But then colorblind people started trying them on, and they began to see the world in a whole new way.
The glasses were created by 2AI Labs, a company co-founded by evolutionary biologist Mark Changizi when he left Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in New York. At 2AI, Changizi continues to conduct research, investigating how the brain processes visual information and searching for the answers to questions such as why we see color and what sort of tricks occur in the brain to create optical illusions.
Last summer the Boise, Idaho-based company developed three pairs of glasses called O2Amps. Special filters in the lenses either amplify the perception of blood oxygenation beneath the skin, blood concentration, or both. In this way the glasses allow users to detect emotions more clearly. Hospitals are already conducting trials with the glasses that can help nurses spot veins – many of us know firsthand how difficult, and painful, locating veins can be. They could also serve as a kind of frontline lie detector for police officers and security guards.
2AI then got the idea that the O2Amps might help people with red-green deficiency, a genetic condition affecting 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women that renders them incapable of distinguishing between red and green. Last November 2AI began trials testing their O2Amp Oxy-Iso to see if it could correct red-green deficiency. The Oxy-Iso enhances the perception of blood oxygenation while eliminating the perception of blood concentration. The user testimonials for the $297 eyewear have thus far been promising.
After taking the Ishihara Color Test, those graphics in which numbers are hidden in a sea of reddish and greenish dots, one reviewer posted on the company website, “...the Oxy-Iso lens blew me away. All of a sudden, the numbers just appeared on the screen!”
There are some drawbacks to the glasses, however. One consequence of boosting reds and greens is that detection of blues and yellows is compromised. Daniel Bor, a neuroscience professor at the University of Sussex described that while he could now score perfect on the Ishihara Test, he could no longer see the yellow-green light on his daughter’s baby monitor (and thinking it was off when it was actually on). Also, yellow street lights will essentially become invisible. For this reason 2AI warns users that the glasses should not be worn driving. So users will have to make a calculated decision about how much blue-yellow perception they’re willing to sacrifice to regain red-green perception. Changizi believes that overall the corrective eyewear are exactly that, saying the “Oxy-Iso spreads the color confusion more evenly around the color-wheel, rather than having it concentrated only on red-green.”
In a book released in 2010 entitled “Vision Revolution,” Changizi argues that humans are better than other mammals at perceiving color and we evolved this heightened capacity specifically to detect oxygenation variations beneath the skin of those around us. This allows us, according to Changizi, the valuable ability to perceive the emotional state of our friends and foes – when they blush or blanche – just by looking at them.
But rather than giving us a more precise fight-or-flight trigger, the O2Amps could help caregivers and police officers do their jobs better, help the colorblind to see reds and greens, maybe even make poker players better at calling someone's bluff. Keeping their own hand close to their vest, 2AI doesn’t offer details about the technology. Nor, as far as I could find, has there been any scientific documentation about how well the glasses actually work. But based on the growing number of testimonials, it seems as though red-green colorblind people already consider the O2Amps a beautiful sight to behold.