Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I Want To See Violet

One of my earliest memories is standing in front of My Wonderful Mom as a young lad proclaiming how much I loved the purple and white pants I was wearing.  They were so cool.  They were the best.  There was only one problem: they weren't purple.  They were blue.

It probably came as no great surprise to my parents that I was colorblind (the politically correct name for which these days is "color vision deficient", but I have been and always will be colorblind).  My uncle on my mom's side is red-green colorblind (and how he made a successful living as a farmer is beyond me).  Color blindness is genetic and passed along from your mom.  I have her to thank for my colorblindness, my puny musculature, and 50% of the other things I can blame on my DNA.  Thanks Mom.

But I was young and able to bounce back.  I was accepting of the fact that many of the professions I might otherwise aspire to probably would not work out in the end: interior designer ("What have you done to my beautiful house!?!?"), bomb disposal expert ("Cut the green wire."), and last but not least, professional telephone cable splicer.  I was the butt of these jokes and many others through life.
I Have Nightmares Like This
My chosen profession of Engineering is bad enough.  Geology labs back in University were horrible.  I remember having to identify different types of rocks in an exam, and one of the keys in doing so is going by color.  Worse was the infamous resistor color code. Carbon film resistors are marked with a series of colored bands to indicate their value and tolerance.  To make matters worse, my difficulty in resolving colors is compounded when the colored bit I'm looking at is small.  To this day, I have never bothered to memorize this fundamental code: there's no point in me doing so. 
When people think of color-blindness, they think of the whole rods and cones thing, but there is more to it than that.  The best explanation I've come across is this one:
Colour vision is based on an opponent process [1]. There are three kinds of colour receptors called L, M and S (for Long, Medium and Short) and they are receptive to colours centred around the red, green, and blue parts of the visible light spectrum respectively.

Here is a good graph showing how sensitive each receptor is to different wavelengths of light: 
But we don't perceive colour directly from these receptors. Instead, our visual systems combine the output of these receptors to form three channels: black vs. white (L+M+S), red vs. green (L-M) and blue vs. yellow (S-(M+L)). This is why there is no such colour as a reddish-green or a bluish-yellow; our visual systems are not able to perceive these (except under exceptional laboratory conditions). As you can see in the graph, the L, M and S receptors aren't just receptive to pure red, green and blue but to a range of wavelengths centred near these colours, and they all overlap to some degree. But the L (green) and M (red) receptors overlap quite a bit.
In red-green colour blindness, either the L or M are shifted so they're even closer. This means that the red vs. green (L-M) channel is no longer able to distinguish between the two, so this channel is always close to zero and the person no longer sees either red or green just something muddy in between. Blue-yellow colour blindness is similar, but in this case it's the S channel that's shifted towards the L and M. In this case it overlaps with both and this means there's no longer any colours that activate the S without also activating L and M (and vice versa), making it impossible to distinguish blue from yellow.

I stumbled on this when skimming through YCombinator on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The link above pointed to an article on BoingBoing called "Color for the Colorblind".  I read it and was fascinated.  The article describes sunglasses from a company called EnChroma that promises to correct colorblindness while you are wearing them.  Wow.

First you take a test on their website to determine what kind of colorblindness you have and how bad it is.  The test results told me I was a "strong duotan", and I had no idea initially what that meant.  A little research told me that they were telling me what I already knew: I was red-green colorblind, and I had it bad.
Damned If I Can See Anything but a Bunch of Dots
Then I got to this video on the Press section of their site.  At around 45 seconds into it, I started to cry.
...there is always an "aha" moment.  When they'll turn and look at something and say... "Is that flower... violet?" And they've never seen violet before...
Neither had I.

I pulled myself together, went downstairs, and asked My Lovely Wife to bring up first this video called No Such Thing as Color.  It starts with a guy looking at different houses and trying to guess what color they are.  Thing is, I can't tell if he is getting them right or wrong.  I'm guessing he gets a bunch of them wrong, or he wouldn't be colorblind.

 Skip The Last Half - It Gets Pretty Lame

Then I asked My Lovely Wife to watch the EnChroma video.  At around 45 seconds in, I started crying again.  I think she thought I was laughing until she turned around and saw the tears in my eyes.  I desparately wanted to see violet too.

I put in my order to EnChroma later that night for a pair of EnChroma Cx Receptors.  These are designed to fit over top of my prescription glasses, without which I see nothing but a blur.  The three to five business day wait for shipping turned into three weeks.  Seems a lot of other people had read that same BoingBoing article and wanted to see violet as well.  Oh well.  I had been colorblind all my life.  I could wait a few more weeks.

As I waited for my order to arrive, I didn't tell anyone besides My Lovely Wife, My Wonderful Mom, and My Cool Sister.  I had to tell somebody, but I didn't want to spread the news around too much; I wasn't sure if these things were going to work in the first place.  I did drop the odd hint though, like changing my Facebook profile picture.
I kept a close eye on my UPS tracking number as my precious shipment wound it's way up from California to my home in the Great White North.  When the happy day arrived, I went to the courier to pick them up and got a little more than I bargained for, to the tune of...
  • $20.77 in customs fees
  • $21.81 in taxes
  • $64.60 in UPS brokerage fees (!).  No wonder there have been several class action lawsuits filed against UPS for shipments into Canada.  This is exhorbitant.
Now none of these are Enchroma's fault.  Fees and taxes are inescapable, but I do wish they would offer to ship by US Postal Service to minimize shipping costs to non-US residents.

Anyhoo, they say the glasses work best on a bright sunny day.  I got home late on Friday so decided to wait until Saturday to try them out.  The weather on Saturday was crap so I grudgingly pushed the first try to Sunday.  The crappy weather continued, and it wasn't until we got a small break in the crappiness on Tuesday (with the forecast for extreme crappiness in the days following) that I decided to finally give them a shot.

I wanted to try them first in our backyard.  It has a big flowerbed in the back with several different plants in bloom.  Our backyard also faces a river with farmers fields beyond that, making for quite a sight, colorblind or not.  I also had my wife but on her blouse that she tells me is purple.  I wanted to see violet, after all.

I took a long look around before putting on the EnChromas.  I wanted to get a good sense of "before".  My Lovely Wife got the camera out, started recording, and I put the glasses on for the first time.

The partly-cloudy sky transformed itself into something from an alien world.  I didn't really know if what I was looking at now was accurate or just... different.  Whatever I was looking at had far more "pop" than what I had noticed before.  I just stood there and stared for a while, repeating that it "looked different".  I noticed my mouth was hanging open.

I turned around and our pink stucco house exploded into my view with a vibrancy I could not have imagined.  What I thought had been dull and faded was far from it.  Then I looked down and the chickweed in our lawn blazed in front of my eyes like it had been electrified.  I was taken aback.  I tried to describe it to My Lovely Wife as the recording went on but my voice started to crack and I felt the emotion washing over me like that day from weeks ago.  I am probably the first person ever to be overcome by emotion from a weedy lawn.

I looked over at My Lovely Wife and could see that she was getting choked up as well, her violet blouse shining before my eyes.

I had gotten what I was after.  I signaled to her to stop the recording so we could see how it turned out.  I wanted to share the experience I'd just had with others but, alas, there were technical difficulties and these words will just have to do.

I kept the sunglasses on and took a walk around the yard.  The brown stain on our deck was no longer brown, it was brown, with a richness I had not seen before.  I then noticed how browns stood out so much more from greens than they did before.  A small dead pine tree some distance away that would have been almost invisible to me before in the grassy background was easy to spot.  And was our green truck ever green!  A world that had been hidden from me was starting to reveal itself.

I looked down at myself and the burgundy shirt I was wearing lit up before my eyes.  "WOW!", I shouted.  "LOOK AT MY SHIRT!!!"  My Lovely Wife had always liked the shirt more than I did.  To me, it seemed a bit dull.  I was wrong.  I kept staring back at it thinking I had made some kind of mistake.

It was time to go back into the house.  I kept the glasses on but didn't expect much wearing them inside.  As I thought, I didn't see any real improvement, and the folks at EnChroma caution you about this: they work best out in the open with bright natural light.  They came up empty in early evening on a cloudy day.

I am looking forward to the coming days and weeks.  Apparently, they become more effective as your brain adapts to a new way of seeing the world when the sunglasses are on.  The crappy weather might slow that process down, unfortunately.  On the other hand, I'm really hoping for a nice rainbow sometime.  People with this eyewear rave about rainbows (and fortunately for me, the price on these things has come down since that article as well).

I got into this wanting to see violet, but so far it is the greens that are blowing me away.  The new growth on the tips of spruce trees stand out like the lights on a Christmas tree.  I find myself distracted by the rain soaked, green grass growing brightly in the ditches on the drive in to work.  And I will always remember the first time I saw that chickweed and really saw green.  It is only too bad that these sunglasses aren't a cure for colorblindness.  They only do their magic while being worn.  Once I take them off, I return to my muted, drab world.  But to me, something is a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Now my new Facebook profile picture should make sense to everyone.


  1. Way kewl, Buddy's Dad! Toadawwy werf da stoopit taxes an' xtwa fees an' junk, wite?? Duz Buddy wook diff'went?

    1. Bud looks pretty much the same. I've got black and white down solid even without the magic sunglasses.