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Harnessing a chance discovery - and sharing color

The lenses, which are helping colorblind people see correctly, look no different than any other pair of eyeglasses. (WHAM photo)

Canandaigua, N.Y. (WHAM) - Color is just starting to appear as spring blooms at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua.

Donald McPherson and his wife take in the tulips that have opened their petals. The flowers are revealing colors that look more brilliant to McPherson, whose glasses look like sunglasses but do much more. They were originally developed for surgeons.

"I was using my glass science training that I learned at Alfred University to design and manufacture laser safety eye wear [for surgeons]," said McPherson. "It got back to me that the surgeons were stealing the eye wear and using them as sunglasses. I thought that was cool and I should try that myself. So I started wearing them as sunglasses."

That is how a friend of his ended up wearing the glasses during a Frisbee tournament, after forgetting his sunglasses.

"He said that for the first time in his life, he could see the cones that were on the field, the marker cones," McPherson said. "I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, those are fluorescent orange and the grass is green.' But to him, he couldn't tell the difference."

McPherson's friend was colorblind, and had just discovered that McPherson's glasses didn't just protect surgeons' eyes from lasers and his own from the sun; they also revealed a world of color he had never seen before.

"I had one of those moments where I just had to stop and think, 'What's going on?,'" McPherson said. "Not exactly a eureka moment, but a slight realization that something really profound was being handed to me."

McPherson started researching, diving into the science.

"Over the course of seven years, [I] received three grants from the National Institute of Health, which allowed me to do some clinical studies at some universities to understand the deep science and effect of the technology. And in 2010, we launched a company called EnChroma."

EnChroma makes sunglasses and regular glasses - with and without prescription - with this technology inside. The technology also exists in contact lenses, but the Food and Drug Administration needs to approve them before they can go to market.

"The reason this works is because we're just re-establishing the correct ratio of light captured by the photons in the eye, doing selective wavelength filtering," said McPherson. "That's how the technology works. It's buried in these gray lenses."

Behind the camera during 13WHAM's interview with McPherson was Mark Schuman, a long-time photographer with the station who happens to be colorblind.

"I didn't realize it," said Schuman. "Although, when I was in kindergarten, my teacher told her [my mother] that I wasn't learning my colors."

It wouldn't be until third grade that an eye test would reveal Schuman was colorblind.

But that never stopped him for capturing some of the most important stories in the Rochester and surrounding communities for the last 30+ years.

Schuman said when he started photography, the viewfinder was in black and white. And now that it's in color, he depends on making sure his camera is seeing white correctly.

"I just probably find myself white balancing more than your average photographer," said Schuman. "People ask me all the time, 'What do you see?' I see what I've seen all my life, I see colors."

But after putting on the EnChroma glasses, Schuman saw color in a way he had never seen before.

"I've never seen grass like that before. I've never seen it quite as vibrant," said Schuman while wearing the EnChroma glasses for the first time. "People's faces look different to me, yours, everybody's."

"It sends chills up your back, it's pretty amazing when they see something they've never seen before," said McPherson. "It's what children go through, but now they're seeing it as an adult."

Children are who McPherson now wants to focus on. He wants to make sure kids aren't left behind because they have color blindness or a color deficiency.

"My goal - and I think I'm in a position to do this but I'm going to need a lot of help from people who are administrators, policymakers and passionate people who have the ability to step up and help - is to get contact lenses and or glasses to every colorblind child in this country," said McPherson. "There's so much evidence that this can greatly affect the learning process."

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