Special glasses give people superhuman colour vision

Two mauve colours side by side, seen through three loops, two containing special filters
It’s sometimes practically impossible to tell similar colours apart. Even side by side, they look the same. A special pair of spectacles gives us new power to see more distinct colours, and could one day help to spot counterfeit banknotes or counteract camouflage.

The glasses, devised by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, basically enhance the user’s colour vision, allowing them to see metamers – colours that look the same but give off different wavelengths of light – as recognisably distinct hues.

Human colour vision relies on three types of cone cells that react to short (blue), medium (green) and long (red) wavelengths. While brushing up on his knowledge of the eye before teaching a photonics class, physicist Mikhail Kats had a brainwave. Could the eye be tricked into effectively having another type of cone cell?

In theory, this could take our vision from being trichromatic, which uses three colour channels, to tetrachromatic. Some animals see in four (or more) channels. Goldfish, for example, have cells for red, blue, green and ultraviolet light. Some researchers suggest that a very small number of humans may be tetrachromats too.

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