Color Binoculars augments reality to help the colorblind

Like most colorblind people, a colorblind Microsoft engineer wanted to be able to distinguish colors better and to get an idea of what the rest of the world saw.  To help him do that, he worked with another Microsoft software engineer to create a new app. Called Color Binoculars, the app is iOS only at this point so I haven't really given it a shot yet.  I'll have to dig out my cranky old iPad and see how it works on that so I can update this with my impressions.

Image from  Microsoft Blog

Image from Microsoft Blog

The app has selections for the most common types of colorblindness and enhances color differences to help colorblind users differentiate colors.  It's like a digital approach to what the EnChroma glasses are supposed to do.  

For now I wanted to put this out there and get more attention on it in case others might find it useful.  You can find out more about it on the Microsoft Blog.

Google releases Color Enhancer plugin for Chrome

According to Google it's a color filter that partially colorblind users can customize and use to improve color perception.  

At least for me, I'm not sure it's doing much, but I am also finding the calibration routine it wants you to go through is fiddly and unreliable for me.  Could my wide gamut displays be messing with it? I don't know, but I'm going to try it on another machine/screen tomorrow.

It may work for some though, and it's a nice idea.  There are similar programs out there designed to enhance color perception of images, and a browser plugin is a logical extension of the concept.  Accessibility options for programs to help colorblind users are not as common as they could be, and the web doesn't always design with the colorblind user in mind either.

Try it out for yourself, maybe it'll be helpful for you!

Suggestions for colorblind hikers

A friend of mine forwarded this link to me which has some suggestions for colorblind hikers who have trouble identifying blazes on trails. The article outlines one particularly interesting way to help identify the colors of the blazes: carry paint samples to reference the blazes against. It covers how to make these and how to use them as well as some other tips to help colorblind hikers.

Another approach that I think would work well would be to carry colored filters to aid in identifying the blazes. A blue filter would make a blue blaze look brighter and a orange filter would make orange blazes brighter for example. A tool like the Seekey could also be useful in identifying the color of the blaze. Good lighting will help when comparing the blaze to the paint sample or when viewing it through the filter, so if it's too dark a flashlight (preferably not one of those cheap purply LED ones) may obviously be useful.

Helpful Suggestions for Color Blind Hikers, the New York Outdoors Blog

(I own a copy of one of their books, 200 Waterfalls in Central & Western New York)

Seekey allows the colorblind to see colors again

As with most red-green colorblind people I have trouble with many things. Someone with a more severe deficiency than I may find traffic lights difficult to interpret but even in less critical areas the inability to tell red and green apart reliably can be quite frustrating. If I walked around any office or my house I could easily find many things with indicator lights that are a variety of colors. Most are some combination of red, green and yellow. If red means charging and green means ready then how am I to know which is which?

When you live with this sort of problem for a while you get used to it, sometimes you can find ways around it. With one of my camera chargers I find I can tell if the LED is orange or green by putting my eye right up to it and letting the LED fill my vision as a blurry mass of color. By doing this I am at least able to fairly reliably distinguish which color that particular device is displaying. This doesn't always work and it isn't really a very practical solution.

One way to make it easier to distinguish colors is to use colored filters. There are a number of ways one could go about this but we can fairly easily summarize the basics by looking at a color wheel. A basic color wheel as shown on the left consists of the additive primaries (red, green and blue) and the subtractive primaries (cyan, magenta and yellow).

The additive primaries combine to create white while the subtractive primaries combine to create black. Both of these concepts form the basis for many types of display and printing systems. With the right C, M and Y primaries a printer could in theory produce a full range of colors and neutral tones and with R, G and B a computer monitor or TV can display the the full range of colors and neutral tones as well.

The positioning of the various colors is important too. If you looked through a red filter at something cyan in color you would see that it becomes very dark (the basis behind using a red filter to darken the sky in B&W photography). On the other hand looking through a red filter at a red object would make it appear bright by comparison. Based on this wheel a colorblind person could carry some color filters with him to help understand the colors in his surroundings. Red and green filters could be used to help distinguish between red and green indicator lights for example. Hold up a red filter and the green lights would dim while the red lights appear bright. The opposite happens if you hold up the green filter.

I have considered carrying filters in this manner although much of the time I can get by without them and fact that they would get torn up fairly quickly in my wallet made me rule that idea out. The Seekey gets around this problem by having green and red hard plastic filters housed in a slim case for protection. You can easily swing out the filters when you need them, making this a much more convenient tool in many ways than dealing with flimsy, floppy gel filters.

The Seekey was invented by Kenneth Allblom and is available for purchase using Paypal from almost anywhere although getting one delivered to the US isn't cheap since they're located in Sweden. After shipping a Seekey costs over $50 in the USA but I felt it was something worth trying and writing about for the site and that it's something I would be glad I had in the long run for my own ease of interpreting colors.

The Seekey is shipped well protected and with a sheet of paper explaining its use. There really isn't much to say about the Seekey, it works as expected and as advertised. The price is steep but my curiosity got the best of me and I can say it's a fun little toy and in many ways has good conversation starting potential. Is it really worth the price' That's a tough thing to say, I don't think I would generally recommend it to everyone but for those with severe enough color deficiencies it is certainly worth looking in to.

Check out the Seekey website for more information and to see some more explanations of its use.

Software for the colorblind: WhatColor

whatcolorAlthough it has been a while since the last post like this I am always interested to find more tools meant to help the colorblind with using their computers or photography in general. I had heard of this program before but didn't have the time to try it out and post about it until now. WhatColor is a shareware program, the program you download is a fully functional evaluation copy and an $8 registration is requested if you like and intend to continue using the software. It's much cheaper than the eyePilot software I reviewed previously but is also much simpler however that doesn't mean it isn't useful. For one thing it is compatible with Windows Vista so if you're in that situation and eyePilot still doesn't work (they have yet to release a Vista version, so I suspect they'll be late to the Windows 7 game as well) then this is a good tool to check out. Unfortunately WhatColor does not offer a Mac compatible version.

The featureset of WhatColor is much more basic than eyePilot but it is still helpful. As the image shows it will display a larger swatch of the color the cursor is centered on and it will read out the color in any of a number of formats based on how you set the program up (default is RGB hexadecimal). It also gives you a name for the color which is nice although I prefer the names that eyePilot uses because they're more generic and easier for me to interpret.

While it lacks the nice features of eyePilot like the ability to change colors on screen or highlight a certain color it still makes it easier to identify a color for me. Previously my best option was to take a screen shot and look at the RGB values in PhotoShop. At least now I can pull up this program and get the RGB values and a color name which is much faster and much more helpful.

I don't see any reason to not give this application a try, it's well worth checking out for colorblind computer users who need some help isolating and identifying colors. To download the program or find out more about it just follow this link to the WhatColor website.

Software for the colorblind: Tenebraex eyePilot

Pretend you're at a busy subway or train station in a city you don't know your way around. You're supposed to pick out the trains you need and the stations to switch at to get somewhere. The lines are all color coded: red, blue, green, yellow, orange, etc. What do you do if the colors are muted or not particularly clear and you're color blind?

If you guessed stand there frustrated and confused, you guessed right!

Even under ideal conditions, like on a calibrated computer screen, greens can blend in to oranges and they can be difficult to differentiate from reds for many people (and there are certainly other kinds of color vision defects). If you haven't figured it out by now from posts about color vision and the title of this site haven't given it away, I'm one of those people.

There are various programs on the market catering to helping people with color vision problems better understand what is on their computer monitor. Although not generally tools for photography, some can come in handy and since I get a lot of people coming here after searching for color vision related topics I think writing about these programs is appropriate. One tool which I have owned for a couple years and does come in handy from time to time is eyePilot made by Tenebraex and available here:

This program is compatible with OSX and Windows (not Vista yet but they say they may have something available by the fall) for a reasonable $34. It is a simple interface that presents a box over a region of your screen and allows you to interact with whatever is happening in programs or on your desktop behind it.

The program offers four main modes of interacting with color on your display. In one mode a little box follows your cursor and reads out the RGB values for whatever color your cursor is pointing at. It also tells you in plain English what color it is, so you get some idea if that's a orange, green or red color. I really appreciate that, long having hated the boxes of markers without names for the colors. It's something I think would be nice to see even in Photoshop although I've gotten fairly used to just reading the RGB values. This tool at least prevents me from having to take a screen shot to dump in to Photoshop to figure out what colors I'm looking at.

Two additional modes are particularly handy for separating colors. One turns everything but the color you click on gray, and another makes the color you click on blink black.

There's one additional mode called the "hue" tool which cycles colors within the box through the spectrum and allows you to find a combination of colors that maximises your ability to differentiate between whats on the screen. If the example were the orange, green and red train lines, by rotating the hue wheel I might find a postion where the colors are instead presented as yellow, blue and red which I could actually tell apart. I don't know what combinations are likely, and that is just a fabricated example, but that's what the tool does and it does work.

That's it for eyePilot, but I will be looking for more software that can help the color blind and will write about more in the future.