science tech neuroscience optics health 02amps evolution eyes colorblindness lighting
A Cure for Colorblindness?

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by Sam McNerney

Why do humans see colors? For years the leading hypothesis was that color vision evolved to help us spot nutritious fruits and vegetation in the forest. But in 2006, evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi and colleagues proposed that color vision evolved to perceive oxygenation and hemoglobin variations in skin in order to detect social cues, emotions and the states of our friends or enemies. Just think about the reddening and whitening of the face called blushing and blanching. They elicit distinct physiological reactions that would be impossible without color vision.

A few years ago Changizi left Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he was professor to co-found 2AI Labs with Dr. Tim Barber. Their Boise, Idaho-based research institute, funded via technology spin-offs coming out of their work, aimed at solving foundational problems in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The move allowed Changizi to continue to conduct academic work with more intellectual freedom and less of a reliance on grants.

Fruits of their labor

Last summer the team at 2AI developed three pairs of glasses called O2Amps based on Changizi’s color vision theory. By visually enhancing oxygenated blood and blood pooling, the lenses amplify the social cues that allow users to perceive emotions more clearly.

The eyewear is being used for a number of innovative applications. The first is medical. The lenses enhance vasculature beneath skin, helping nurses identify veins; they also amplify trauma and bruising that might be invisible to the naked eye. Many hospitals are putting the O2Amps through trials, and seeing positive results. The eyewear is also potentially useful for police and security officers– imagine if a TSA agent could more easily perceive nervousness– as well as poker players.

An answer for red-green colorblindness?

Now a new application for the O2Amps is emerging. Last November, 2AI Labs distributed lenses to people who are color blind to see if they would help. The researchers were particularly interested in their Oxy-Iso variety of lenses, which they predicted would diminish red-green deficiency – a genetic anomaly present in about 10 percent of males.

A string of positive user reviews is confirming their effectiveness. Without the eyewear, one volunteer, a neuroscience professor at the University of Sussex named Daniel Bor, failed the Ishihara Color Test, a means of testing colorblindness. These recognizable tests involve colored plates with a circle of dots containing a number visible to people with normal color vision but invisible to people who are colorblind (or have difficulties perceiving some colors). With the lenses, Bor received a perfect score. ”Without [the Oxy-Iso], I scored almost nothing, but with the specs got all the answers correct,” Bor said.

One downside is the Oxy-Iso lenses hinder the perception of yellows and blues at the expense of enhancing reds and greens. This is especially problematic for drivers because the eyewear renders yellow lights nearly invisible. Furthermore, it does not correct total color blindness.

2AI Labs is also in the midst of developing interior lighting with the O2Amp technology. Using recently acquired grant money Changizi and his colleagues are studying applications for architectural lighting and windows. So far they’ve created a prototype lamp for living spaces that reduces glare and creates “warm” human-friendly illumination they are calling the “O2Lamp.” According to their website, the prototype will also “filter the light itself so that everyone in the room experiences the effects, no eyewear needed.”

"Whereas the Oxy-Iso gives the colorblind a new enhanced red-green sense, useful among other things for emotions and health on the skin of others, our Oxy-Amp technology enhances the perception of emotions and health for all of those with normal color vision," Changizi said.

Top Image: Ishihara color perception plate courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sam McNerney is a science writer who focuses on cognitive science. His writing has appeared on ScientificAmerican.com, BBC Focus and Huffingtonpost.com. He maintains the column “The Cognitive Philosopher” at CreativityPost.com.

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