Valspar Paint produced this short documentary in concert with EnChroma to show what happens when colorblind people experience color for the first time. (Valspar Paint Color For All: Color for the Color Blind)

I'm not usually one for heartstring-tugging ads, but this collaboration between Valspar Paint and EnChroma, a company that makes color-boosting sunglasses for the color-blind, is pretty cool. And the coolest thing about the glasses in the above video is that they weren't designed to help the color-blind at all.

[Related: Meet the eyeless man who says he can see (and is probably right)]

Smithsonian Magazine reports that EnChroma Labs founder Don McPherson (a materials scientist) had originally engineered the glasses with surgeons in mind. The lenses contained rare earth iron and absorbed a ton of light to protect surgeons performing laser eye surgery. The boosted absorption also made colors pop more vibrantly, allowing them to more easily distinguish among different tissues during surgery.

But the stellar eye protection and vibrant colors meant that many surgeons wanted to wear them outside the operating room. McPherson himself started using them as regular sunglasses. And when a color-blind friend tried them on, he was amazed: He could distinguish orange traffic cones from the grass and pavement around them. He was perceiving color in a way he never had before.

Now EnChroma sells the glasses (which have been specifically tailored for color blindness since the accidental discovery) for a few hundred bucks a pop. Another product, Oxy-Iso glasses, uses a different method to increase the contrast between colors frequently confused by the color-blind, allowing them to pass color blindness tests and experience colors they couldn't otherwise.

[Related: This $35 wristband helps the blind use bat-like echolocation]

In an eye with normal color vision, there are three kinds of cones (or photopigments) that allow us to perceive color. From Smithsonian Magazine:

McPherson explains that all people have three photopigments in the eye, also known as cones, which are sensitive to blue, green and red. Blue operates fairly independently, while the red and green cones, in most humans, overlap, affecting the perception of certain colors. For example, if 10 photons landed on the red cone and 100 landed on the green cone, the object viewed would appear more green. Whereas if an equal number of photons landed on the red and green cones, the color perceived would be yellow.

A problem arises when the red-green cones overlap too much, a condition that accounts for 99 percent of colorblindness cases. When this happens, in the previous scenario, instead of yellow, an individual would perceive little, if any color. EnChroma’s technology works by placing a band of absorption on glasses that captures light, pushing the cones away from each other and reestablishing the normal distribution of photons on them.

The glasses don't work for everyone: In a piece for the Atlantic, Oliver Morrison describes his total disappointment in the product. But Morrsion, it turns out, has what's considered the worst form of color blindness -- he's one of the 20 percent of color-blind people who totally lack either red or green photopigments -- so he didn't see enough different colors for the glasses to enhance him to "true" color vision. He still might think a yellow sign looked green, albeit a more vivid green than he was used to seeing.

But as you can see in the new video, the glasses have a purpose beyond just practical use. Satisfied customers are downright flabbergasted by the world of color that most of us take for granted.

This piece has been corrected to better describe Oxy-Iso glasses. 


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