Creating Color for the Colorblind: Dr. Don McPherson
Dr. Don McPherson is the co-founder of EnChroma, a company responsible for possibly the most groundbreaking technology in the field of color deficient vision. What was once considered to be moderately treatable with lenses that only work outdoors has now been refined with the invention of technology that provides color vision to over 80% of those with red-green color deficiencies. Dr. McPherson graciously took time out of his schedule to chat with us and he provided insight into the colorful world he and his team created.
You’ve got a PhD. in Glass Science; what inspired you to jump into that field?
I had just finished my undergraduate degree at Ohio University, with a focus on Math, Chemistry and Art, with the Art focus printmaking and glassblowing.
I had always loved glass and when I had the opportunity to study glass science I convinced myself that I would eventually return to art with this additional glass knowledge. Well, that didn’t happen because I fell in love with the science. I jumped in and never jumped out.
What were some of your first career experiences when leaving University?
First, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in Auckland, New Zealand. I returned stateside ending up in California working at Hoya Optics. After a few years, I started my own glass science business in Berkeley, CA, which I called Bay Glass Research.
You initially created eyewear for the medical industry. Is that correct?
At Bay Glass Research I got to fully use my glass science knowledge and do things I only read about in my textbooks at Alfred University. Starting with my understanding of glass structure, I designed some novel glass systems which I then melted and cast glass slabs. They were then pressed into lens blanks and ground into lenses. These lenses I sold as protective eyewear to Silicon Valley medical laser companies.
I’ve read that you discovered that you created a solution for colorblindness by accident. Is that correct?
A friend of mine borrowed a pair of the aforementioned laser safety eye-wear while we were competing in an ultimate frisbee tournament in Santa Cruz, California. He couldn’t believe how colorful the glasses made the world appear to him. I became curious when he told me he was colorblind.
So began my research project to try to understand what was going on. I knew the glasses enhanced color perception for people with normal color vision and seemed to help the color vision of colorblind people.
Did your product require any refining before it was ready to market to colorblind individuals?
Modifying the laser safety eyewear to be suitable for colorblindness required 3 grants from the NIH and about 15 years of continual refinement including moving from glass to lightweight plastic.
You’re not colorblind yourself; Did you find it difficult to place yourself in your customer’s shoes?
It is an inherently difficult perception to understand fully because of the adaptations that they develop over years however I do think I have reached a level of understanding of what it is like to be colorblind.
How large was your test pool?
We have done clinical studies with as little as a handful of subjects to more than a dozen. We have done in-house studies on 100 or so subjects. We also have the ad-hoc responses from tens of thousands of customers.
Did you find any apprehensiveness from people whom you told of your discovery?
I don’t think we experienced apprehension as much as disbelief from many levels, from the uninformed to the out of touch. When optometrists are told in college that colorblindness can’t be corrected, like a refraction issue with Rx glasses, then this becomes their ground truth on the subject, so we had to convince them through science and personal testimonials.
Your company Enchroma has changed lives. Did you know and understand the impact you and your team would have on people? Do you still find the testimonials to be moving?
We are quite aware of our impact on the lives of people for whom we are providing a way to experience the full spectrum of color. We are, at this point, a team of very talented people and I find the testimonials are inspiring.
I’ve spoken to many gamers who have found great success and improvement in performance while using your product. Was this something you had anticipated?
After some serious science, we made prototype glasses designed specifically for gaming. We tested these glasses with colorblind people who gamed and we found that their gaming performances improved dramatically. Because of this research and testing, we are not surprised to hear people are experiencing gaming improvement with EnChroma eyewear because color helps define the edges of shapes. Although we have only tested colorblind people we also expect improvement with normals.
Have you considered expanding your business into the field of gaming?
It is possible.
What is Enchroma’s plans for the future?
Continue to grow and learn from our customers.
Have you got any advice for our readers who may want to follow in your footsteps?
I tend to think that advice is overrated, but I would tell others to never relent in your intellectual curiosity and yearning to learn and don’t get deterred – just become more determined.
We would like to thank Dr. McPherson for taking time from his busy schedule to chat with us, and we look forward to his future contributions to the field.