In the summer of 2013, Smith Optics came out with a new kind of polarized lens tech called “ChromaPop” and they’ve been making some pretty bold claims about it.
In Smith’s own words:
“Quite simply, ChromaPop Lenses are the most advanced polarized lenses in the world… By blocking color wave intersections as they pass through the lens, ChromaPop is able to eliminate color confusion, so your brain is recognizing truer color, faster. ChromaPop optimizes color and increases clarity, enabling you to see the outside world with an unparalleled level of vibrancy.”
Smith seems to be saying that their ChromaPop lenses cut glare and improve clarity and definition (like traditional polarized lenses do), but that they also allow the wearer to see colors that are more vivid and saturated.
In some ways, this sounds like the product copy from most optics companies. Maui Jim, for example, says that their PolarizedPlus2 lenses “[boost] color via specially designed lens treatments. So your view is clearer, with crisper contrast and amazing brilliance.”
So are Smith’s claims about ChromaPop merely your standard marketing jargon, or is there something really here?
How could color be more true or optimized? What are “color wave intersections,” and does “color confusion” refer to a real-world occurrence? In other words, does ChromaPop actually do anything—create a real-world difference and improvement?
We’ve dug a little deeper to see if there is, in fact, some real science behind the lens technology. And of course, we wanted to find out for ourselves whether things look noticeably different / better through a pair of ChromapPop polarized lenses vs. Smith’s normal polarized ones?
In this Gear 101 piece, I’ll try to explain how I think ChromaPop is supposed to work with respect to the science underlying the technology, then relay my experience wearing some of Smith’s ChromaPop lenses.
First things first, we’ll need to talk more broadly about light, colors and how we perceive them.
Light, Color, and the Visible Spectrum
The light and the range of colors we see are all part of the “visible spectrum.” However, this visible spectrum is only a small section of a much broader spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that includes everything from low-frequency radio waves to high-frequency gamma rays.
We perceive a certain color when an object reflects light of a certain wavelength within the visible spectrum. Or, in other words, the object absorbs all other wavelengths of visible light except for that of the color we perceive.
For example, a red t-shirt reflects rays of light with a wavelength of ~700 – 650 nanometers, and absorbs all other wavelengths. Grass appears green because it reflects light with a wavelength of ~510 nanometers.
But Why Does a Red T-Shirt look Red?
Your eyes perceive colors/light through two types of special photoreceptor cells on your retinas (rods and cones) that convert the electromagnetic radiation within the visible spectrum into signals to your brain.
Rod cells are more active in dim light, so they’re less relevant to this discussion (unless you wear your sunglasses at night). Cone cells, however, are responsible for color vision and function best in relatively bright light.
There are three types of cone cells: Long (L), Medium (M), and Short (S), named for the colors (wavelengths) of light to which they are each most sensitive: red, green and blue, respectively. The picture below introduces cone cells and their sensitivity relative different colors of light. Keep in mind that this is a rough diagram that’s merely meant to provide a general visual aid.
When you see a red t-shirt, the ~ 650 nm wavelength of red light stimulates the L cone cells on your retinas, sending an impulse to your brain. Your M and S cone cells don’t react much at all in this case, so your brain knows that it’s received an impulse from a L cone cell, and the color you perceive is red. Of course, we’re able to see colors other than than blue, green, and red, and we perceive those other colors when multiple types of cone cells are stimulated to different degrees.
For example, when an object reflects light with a wavelength of ~ 600 nm, both your L and M cone cells are stimulated, but the L cells (sensitive to red light) react more intensely. Your brain then analyzes the ratio of L signals to M signals and you perceive the color we know as orange. With respect to the wavelengths associated with colors of light, orange is in between green and red on the visible spectrum, but is closer to red than green.
Ok, so then what’s all this business about color confusion?