'Cause life would take a whole new meaning in b/w
November 12, 2011 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to make "black and white" glasses?

So that's pretty much it: is it possible to make glasses that "cancel" color, and make you see in black and white? Grey lenses?
Thanks for your input!
posted by kitsuloukos to Technology (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take a pair of sunglasses, mount small cameras over the front of the lenses. Wire the cameras to LCDs that are on the inside of each lens, which show video signal in B+W.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2011

I'm fairly certain that you can't. The closest you can do is to get glasses that filter out all but a single color -- e.g. red, green or blue. Everything you see will be monochrome; it'll all just be that color, not gray.

Fun fact: cone cells in your retina, responsible for seeing color, are most sensitive in bright environments and for still objects. If your environment is extremely dim and/or you're looking at something moving around quickly, you're essentially seeing purely in black and white.
posted by supercres at 1:20 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, it's the rods that see color. The larger cones are B/W and more sensitive in dim light.

OP, what you want isn't possible. "White" isn't a color. It's an equal mixture of all the colors. (For certain meanings of the word "equal".) So if you were looking at a red object and wanted to see it as gray, then it means that some of the red photons would have to be converted to blue, and some to green. Problem is, blue photons and green photons are more energetic than red photons. Where does the energy come from?

No passive device can do that. It would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:49 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not to get all "someone is wrong on the internet" on you, but....

OP, it does remind me that non-color-sensitive rods are more concentrated around the periphery of the retina. So to sum up, dim light, moving quickly, out of the corner of your eye. Wearing really dark full-coverage sunglasses would essentially give you "black-and-white glasses", as close you're going to get, but that's capitalizing on human neuroanatomy (the Purkinje effect) rather than physics. Above poster mentions why that's impossible.
posted by supercres at 2:14 PM on November 12, 2011

If your environment is extremely dim ..., you're essentially seeing purely in black and white.

This. If you block enough light (very dark gray sunglasses) your color-sensing cone cells won't see anything, and only your black-and-white rod cells will be sending signals to your brain. Just keep adding gray sunglasses, filtering out more and more light, until you can't see any color. By that time, though, what you see will be pretty dim, like a night scene.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:18 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you wear monochromatic glasses for long enough, you might get used to the effect and stop perceiving the overall color cast. I'd guess that it would take several days of nonstop wearing. And a tint isn't good enough - you need to completely block everything but one wavelength.
posted by scose at 2:19 PM on November 12, 2011

There was an episode of the Style Channel "How Do I Look" makeover/fashion intervention show where the subject was obsessed with purple. In order to prove to the subject that her purple obsession was blinding her to how ugly & ill-fitting her clothes were, they had her put on goggles that made everything appear in shades of gray, and had her look at a bunch of outfits on mannequins and pick out which ones she liked. Half of the mannequins had her baggy awful purple clothes on and half of them had nice normal outfits, and not being able to see the colors she was finally able to see that her friends & family had been right about how ridiculous her outfits looked. (can't find anything but the intro up online, but I don't use hulu, maybe it's there)

So, I don't think you could make glasses that turned everything into a black & white "Pleasantville" world where the whites are still sharp, but, it seems like goggles with the right filters could mute everything to different shades of gray.
posted by oh yeah! at 2:20 PM on November 12, 2011

The reason you can't do this is that white is a color. White is like the orchestra that plays in such an even balance that you can't detect the individual instruments. If you can see white you can see all colors, provided the brightness allows your cones to operate. If you filter out all colors, you also filter out white. Black is the absence of color. It is the visual equivalent of silence.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:10 PM on November 12, 2011

Absolutely fascinating, imjustsaying.

As you may know, Oliver Sacks has written a long essay-- first titled "The Case of the Colorblind Painter" (pdf) and appearing initially in the New York Review-- about an artist who lost all ability to see color in the wake of an automobile accident.

In losing color he did seem to gain something, however; he claimed to be able to see as much detail in very low light as normals could see in broad daylight, so that he could read the smallest print by moonlight alone, for example. Which implies he didn't lose all input from the cones, but only the ability to interpret it as color, because there are only cones in the best image-forming parts of the retina.

This made sense to me in one way because the three populations of cones have different time constants, roughly, they accumulate different numbers of photon absorptions before firing, making it possible to generate perceived colors by rotating an entirely colorless disk (Benham's disk), and if those accumulation times were removed or drastically lengthened, you could see arbitrary detail under any non-zero illumination if you waited long enough.

I wondered if it might not be possible for a person with no brain damage to learn to do what that artist couldn't help doing, and your story makes that seem a lot more probable.

So no, kitsuloukos, glasses don't look very feasible, but you might be able to train your brain to do it, anyway.
posted by jamjam at 4:08 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I see the world in black and white when looking through a red (#25A) camera lens filter. A pair of red filter glasses would be pretty damn awesome.
posted by wherever, whatever at 4:26 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Think big, folks: first, filter the light to a few strategically-chosen wavelengths, then use exotic nonlinear optics techniques and materials to selectively shift the frequencies of light leaving small tessellated regions of the lens (call them "pixels" if you like*) to the red, green, and blue wavelengths that TVs and LCDs use. Presto, black-and-white glasses.

Now that Wikipedia page (which I just skimmed... barely) seemed to imply that you needed really high intensity light for this to work, but maybe in the future we'll be able to use specially-shaped nanostructures or something else handwavy to trick light into achieving the sorts of interactions that the article describes.

Anyway, "impossible" seems too strong a word to me.

* not really pixels since light entering one side of the glasses presumably goes out in the same direction, perhaps with some kind of microlens-handwaviness to correct for diffraction or something.
posted by Chef Flamboyardee at 5:07 PM on November 12, 2011

As several have mentioned, the easiest low-tech way to do this is to wear strongly tinted glasses to filter out most colors. If you wear them for a short while, you'll forget the color (for example, there are "hunters" sunglasses out there that are fairly yellow), and your world will be B&W... sort of. Sort of, because some colors will read as black that are somewhat bright (say, purple or cobalt blue, when you wear yellow glasses). But pretty much your view will be reduced to shades of gray, for all practical purposes.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:10 PM on November 12, 2011

Actually, it's the rods that see color. The larger cones are B/W and more sensitive in dim light.

You're mistaken.
posted by svenx at 9:28 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

There was a streetlight near my high school that seemed to give out only a single frequency of yellow light. At night it was the only light source in the area and it meant everything was monochromatic, which looked amazing.
posted by compound eye at 4:58 AM on November 13, 2011

do what artists do...squint. it will blur details but make the color information vanish. (artists use this when drawing or painting to see which object is lighter or darker (it's great for comparison)...which can be hard when objects are very similar or very different in color, or one is brightly patterned)
posted by sexyrobot at 9:31 AM on November 13, 2011

Chocolate Pickle: I don't think it would violate the laws of thermodynamics if the output were always dimmer than the input, so there was no input for which the efficiency would have to be 100% or more. For example, if low energy red light were converted to white light with an efficiency of ~90% and higher-energy blue were converted to white with an efficiency of ~45%.

As far as using monochromatic filters go, I think a yellowish-green one might be best, since red green and blue don't contribute equally to the perception of brightness. (Its 0.2126 R + 0.7152 G + 0.0722 B)
posted by Hither at 11:23 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

waow mefi is so smart... I'm in my end of semester rush, but I'm definitely looking into all of this when I'm done (and getting acquainted with the science behind eyesight; some reading to do) :) Thanks everyone, I can see a couple of directions I could take with this!
posted by kitsuloukos at 8:13 PM on December 3, 2011

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