When I was in preschool, I drew a picture of a mountain covered in evergreen trees. I delivered it to my parents proudly, but I still remember seeing their faces drop as they inspected it. “Ben,” they asked, “why are all the trees dead?”
I couldn’t read, so I’d drawn the picture with whatever crayons looked right. The sky was a pale blue, the granite peaks a sharp black. But the green crayon was too light for the firs. I grabbed a brown because it seemed a better fit, and unknowingly slaughtered an entire forest.
I wasn’t depressed, as my parents feared. I was color blind.
About 8 percent of Northern European males suffer from color blindness, making it the world’s most common congenital defect. It’s a flaw on the X chromosome, and it’s recessive, meaning that women, who have two X chromosomes, have a backup — which is why color blindness is so much more prevalent in men. Still, even if you’re not color blind, chances are you know someone who is.
When people find out I’m color blind, they usually assume I see in black and white or they ask the question, “What colors can’t you see?” It’s a complicated answer. Most of us feel like we see the world in rich color but just have a hard time telling certain shades apart. I might mix up a royal blue with purple, for example, or lose a bright orange ball in a field of green grass. Red, green, and brown are kind of a Bermuda Triangle of colors. I could go on.
Imagine you’re dressing for work in the morning. The sun’s not up and the light’s dim. You open the sock drawer and pick out two. Are they black? Navy blue? Do they match? It’s not that you can’t see either color; it’s just that you can’t quite tell which is which. That’s the best analogy I’ve come up with so far.
Quite frankly, though, it’s not much of a handicap. I sometimes have to ask a stranger in the store what color a shirt is or double-check the color of a pen before writing. I can’t be a pilot (the red and green status lights are confusing), but I didn’t really want to be one, anyhow. At its worst, it’s a big inconvenience: My grandfather once bought what he saw as a mint green Cadillac, only to drive it home and discover it was pink.
Still, it’s sometimes strange to wonder what the world looks like to the rest of you. So when I heard about glasses that could let me see a broader spectrum of colors, I was curious. Then I saw the videos.
These glasses, made by a company called EnChroma, work by selectively blocking parts of the spectrum that confuse a color-blind person’s eyes. That effectively boosts colors we see best, making it possible to better distinguish colors and even see hues we’ve never seen before.
At around $400, the shades aren’t cheap. But my friends and family, after seeing people’s shock on YouTube, encouraged me to try them. Being dirt poor, I got in touch with the company and asked for a pair to review. (They were provided at no charge. Thanks for the hookup, EnChroma!)
Before they came, I took the company’s online vision test, which told me I have “strong protoanomaly” a severe form of red-green color blindness. (This description is pretty spot-on.) According to the company, there was about a 30 percent chance the glasses would work for me.
When the box arrived, I was electric. I basically expected to be this guy:
I opened the box, unwrapped the glasses, and drove with my mom to the botanical gardens nearby. She wanted to be there the first time I tried them. We walked to a clearing and I put them on. I told my mom to roll camera. “Wow!” I kept being ready to exclaim. My eyes darted from flower to flower, leaf to leaf, hoping for the world to reveal itself. When nothing noticeable changed, I started to panic. I’d built this thing up in my head. I’d gotten teary-eyed watching those videos, and I wanted to make one of my own. But so far? Not much.
“You can probably go ahead and turn that off,” I told my mom.
We walked around for a while, and my mom pointed out colors. “Can you see that green?” my mom asked. Yes, but I could always see green. “What about those little red flowers?” Not really, I replied, my heart sinking. We spent about 30 minutes wandering around, and the best I could do was see a bit of pink in the pale cherry blossoms, which usually look white to me.
It was an overcast Seattle day, though, and the glasses work best in bright light (the company has since released lenses designed for cloudy weather). It was also the tail end of winter, and even my mom admitted there wasn’t much color to see. So I sat in the passenger seat as she ran errands, peering out the window to see what I could see.
Then something amazing happened. We stopped at a red light, and when it turned green, my jaw dropped. “That’s green!” I said, like a dumbass. Usually a green light looks sort of pale and off-white, but with the glasses on I could suddenly see it. The same went for my neighborhood’s street signs, which had always looked kind of a brownish tan until the glasses revealed that they, too, were green.
We passed the blue sign of a Chase bank. I usually don’t have much trouble with blue, but the glasses added another, hard-to-describe dimension to it. Was that just its blueness? We passed an ugly purple house and I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”
Over the next few weeks, I wore my new glasses all over. Sometimes I felt like I saw so much more, but other times I just embarrassed myself. I texted pictures to friends: “Is this flower purple?!”
“Nope,” they’d reply. “Pink.”
I kept on looking and looking, trying for weeks to figure out what exactly was happening. Nadia started wondering where this review was, and I’m pretty sure EnChroma forgot about me.
What I can say is this: These glasses absolutely change how I see the world. Pinks pop. Greens are richer and have more depth — as though I can see more of them. I saw a double-rainbow while I was driving and scrambled to put the glasses on. The arcs widened just a little and jumped out from the sky.
The thing is, though, I’m still not sure how much the glasses actually help my color blindness. They turn up the volume, so to speak, but I still can’t hear all the notes of the scale. Certain things are brighter or more obvious, but I still get colors mixed up. I trick myself into thinking I can finally appreciate the bright purple of a neighbor’s front door only to have a friend gently let me know that, no, in fact, it’s blue.
At one point, I had my mom try them on. She’s not color blind, but she gasped. Everything was more intense and more vivid, she said. She told me she could understand better than she ever could how I see the world. To be honest, that kind of bummed me out.
No doubt EnChroma glasses can have mind-blowing effects for some. I don’t think people in the videos are exaggerating. But for me and my goofball eyes, it’s still really hard to say. Am I seeing anything new, or am I just tweaking the levels a little? Is there a difference?
For those of you who are color blind, I’d encourage you try them. The company has a money-back guarantee (just don’t break them), and the potential to be floored is, well, moving. But be warned: Before this review, I didn’t really mind being color blind. Since being teased with the possibility of seeing more, though, I’m actually a tiny bit bitter. With the glasses on, I still feel color blind. With them off, I can finally appreciate how dull and muddy my vision is. The glasses, without quite fixing my color blindness, have made it that much more obvious what I’m missing.
Many thanks to Andy Schmeder at EnChroma for giving me the chance to try the glasses.