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What's It Really Like To Be Colour Blind? My Experiment To Understand My Co-blogger's Condition.

Updated: Jul 31, 2018

With around 1 in 20 people suffering from colour blindness or colour vision deficiency (CVD), it's likely you'll know someone with the condition. Sensorama co-blogger Oliver is colour blind, so I decided to explore the nature of his colour deficiency. What type of colour blindness does he have? How does he experience the world and is it possible for him to see the world as I see it - in full colour?

What is colour blindness and what exactly does a person with colour blindness see?

Colour blindness is the decreased ability to see colour or differences in colour. It is caused by an inherited genetic fault in the colour sensing cones in the eye, for which there is currently no cure. In rare cases it can also result from physical or chemical damage to the eye, optic nerve, or parts of the brain. There is much detailed information on the mechanics behind colour deficiency in my post - 'What is colour blindness?'


A quick guide to the causes of colour blindness from National Eye Institute USA says:


Vision begins when light enters the eye and the cornea and lens focus it onto the retina, a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye that contains millions of light-sensitive cells called photoreceptors. Some photoreceptors are shaped like rods (responsive to dim light) and some are shaped like cones (responsive to bright/daylight).


Cones contain three different photopigments sensitive to long (red), medium (green), or short (blue) wavelengths of light. These three types of photopigments, each sensitive to a different part of the visual spectrum, give us our colour vision.


Colour blindness is the result of defects which alter the photopigment's sensitivity to colour. Depending on the type of defect and the cone that is affected, problems can arise with red, green, or blue colour vision.


Three big questions....

As a person with a strong sense of colour vision I hold a deep appreciation for how much it improves my life; from accomplishing simple tasks such as checking that a gadget is fully charged, to enjoying the magnificence of autumn's fiery hues as the leaves change colour. But I really wanted to know what it was like to see the world through the eyes of someone with colour blindness. So I came up with a plan. First I asked Oliver, my colour blind co-blogger, to be my experimental guinea-pig, then I set out to find the answers to these three simple questions:

  1. What type of colour blindness does Oliver have?

  2. Can I simulate it to get an appreciation of what exactly he sees?

  3. Is there a way of enabling him to see the colours I see – and what would an image like that look like?


An answer to big question No.1: How to find out whether you have colour blindness and what type it is.

A short bit of research led me to download a free app called Color Blind Check. It takes you through 4 timed colour stages; blue, yellow, green and red. These squares of colour appear to ripple as the tiles continuously shift tonally. The idea is to identify 9 differently coloured squares which fade up at random, then select them as fast as possible. At the end the Check Score screen gives you a summary of your performance and which part of your colour vision may be weakest.

I first tested myself to ensure that this app had a reasonable degree of accuracy. It was surprisingly sensitive and concluded I had no problems with my colour vision. Based on the descriptions of colours Oliver had given me in the past, I predicted he would most likely suffer a red/green weakness. The app defined him as having 'mild Deuteranomaly' - where the green cone photo-pigment is abnormal. Deuteranomaly is the most common form of colour blindness affecting around 5% of males, and interferes mostly with their ability to see shades of reds and greens.


Colour blind people with this deficiency see the world like people with normal colour vision see it at dusk or dawn.

At dusk or dawn the breadth of colours start to fade away in a manner comparable to a colour vision deficiency.


Deuteranomalys are more likely to confuse:-

1. Mid-reds with mid-orange and browns

2. Blue-greens with grey-blues

3. Bright greens with yellows

4. Pale pinks with greys

5. Light blues with lilac



An answer to big question No.2: How to simulate colour blindness to see what it's like.

As it is not easy to describe colour blindness, it comes in handy that some smart people developed manipulation-algorithms to fake the various forms of colour vision deficiency. These algorithms transform any picture as seen through the eyes of a colour blind person.


The company who make the Color Blind app also have a website with a simulator. Just upload any picture and select the nature of the colour blindness. I deliberately chose images with a large colour spectrum, or ones that I knew from experience that Oliver had difficulty seeing. Below are my results, with the normal view on the left and Deuteranomaly on the right. Most remarkably, when I put these pictures together for comparison, Oliver found the pictures on the left indistinguishable from the ones right.



It's obvious to see how all of the colours appear dull and washed out in images on the right.

Reds and greens are more difficult to accurately describe. The most suitable word I could think of was 'murky'. This goes some way to explaining why colour blind people struggle to define exactly what colours they do see.



It is fascinating how the predominantly red and green hues seen in nature hold little awe. A sunny autumn day lacks depth and contrast through the eyes of someone with Deuteranomaly; a clump of poppies on a field edge are barely noticeable.


As a person with full colour vision, it saddens me that Oliver cannot enjoy spring blossom, summer gardens and autumn leaves the same way I do.


An answer to big question No.3: Is there a way for colour blind people like Oliver to see what I see?

I wanted to conclude my sortie into the world of colour blindness by enabling Oliver to see the world as I experience it. What alterations would an image need in order for him to see in full colour - and what would that look like to me?


I was aware of the existence of EnChroma, a brand of glasses that supposedly helps to correct the vision of those with mild forms of colour blindness, enabling them to see in full colour.


As engaging as the promotional videos were – tears of joy, expressions of awe etc – this option had key drawbacks.

They are expensive at a minimum of $349 per pair, restricted to certain light conditions (such as looking at screens or being in broad daylight) and would make it difficult for me to convey the exact differences in colour to you, the readers. This task would be best suited to an app where I could easily capture a digital image.


Queue lots of lengthy internet research. This type of software seems to be mostly the domain of small hobby projects. It took a while, but my search paid off when I found that there was app available called Color Binoculars. The snag was that it was only available for Apple users from US iTunes, so it's fortunate I had an American friend with a iPad who could help out.


The app allows a colour blind person to view any object or scene on the iPad which digitally enhances the colours according to their selected colour deficiency. A major advantage was that it was usable in any light conditions. I wanted Oliver to see the four pictures above as I would see them. Frustratingly, viewing those pictures on my tablet screen through the app of the phone did not enhance the colours sufficiently and left Oliver a little disappointed.


Undeterred, I searched for physical objects that Oliver would be able to get an enhanced, full colour view of and located a grass planter with tiny pink flowers woven into it. At first glance Oliver thought it was just a planter, completely unable to see the pink flowers I was describing.


Upon using the Color Binoculars he was astonished to see not only that they were so visible, but just how bold the pink flowers were.

Though the Color Binoculars app hadn't worked so well on viewing colours from another screen, it had a huge effect on real physical items.


Since Deuteranomaly is a weakness of the green/red photopigments, I detected that the app enhanced these colours, making the other colours (mostly blue and yellow based) appear much fainter. I also noticed that a tint of blue was added to red colours, giving red objects a pinkish/purple hue in order for them to become more vibrant.


It was extremely pleasurable to witness Oliver’s delight as he explained how he could now see the colours. He concurred with my description of them as 'vivid' and even went on to define them as 'hot' pink. He confessed he has always been well aware of what he was missing out on and that to see it for himself was a fantastic experience.


In a modern world of gene therapy and smart glasses, it's not inconceivable that colour blindness could be either cured or made conveniently manageable very soon. It would be a wonderful thing for me to show Oliver just how visually tingling spring blossom, summer gardens and autumn leaves really are.



For more photo-comparisons of what the other types of colour blindness look like, check out this article on Bored Panda.

Do you know someone with colour blindness? What are their experiences of living with it? Let us know your stories in the comments section below.


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 Welcome to Sensorama - a blog to tickle the senses.

 

This blog is dedicated to curiously exploring the world via the 5 senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
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