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Meet Specimen, an iOS game that proves you can't see color as well as you thought

Caitlin McGarry | Sept. 9, 2015
Specimen uses art and science to challenge your eyesight—and it's set to a funky groove.

Specimen is a deceptively simple, utterly frustrating iOS game that you will struggle to defeat. You will probably lose, and it’s all thanks to your terrible vision.

The premise of the game is basic: Match friendly-looking little blobs in a petri dish to the color outside the petri dish. Only one specimen matches the exterior exactly. It seems so easy. But the blobs are all variations on the same color, and you’ll quickly realize that your perception is not quite as good as you thought it was.

But that’s the point. Specimen creators Erica Gorochow, Sal Randazzo, and Charlie Whitney designed the app at the New Museum’s New Inc. art and technology incubator in Manhattan. The game is fun, to be sure, but it’s much more than just a silly time-waster. The end goal of Specimen is to figure out how age, gender, geographic location, and screens affect the way we see color. In its early days—Specimen launched in July—the team noticed that players were struggling with greens more than any other color.

“It’s counter to something we had found in the research phase, that we should be able to see a much larger range of greens because of how our eyes evolved,” Gorochow said. “That makes me curious what screens can do. If we do find that there is this pattern among greens, I’d be curious to find out why that is.”

specimen 4 
Erica Gorochow, Charlie Whitney, and Sal Randazzo developed Specimen at the New Museum’s New Inc. technology and artist incubator in Manhattan. Credit: James Bareham

The game might also have some unintended results, like helping people discover they’re colorblind, or the opposite—that they’re tetrachromats, or have four types of cone cells in the eye, and can see thousands of colors the rest of us can’t.

Part of the inspiration for Specimen came from tetrachromacy. Gorochow heard an episode of Radiolab that focused on the condition and wanted to see if an app could detect the way you see color. She needed data, and lots of it. But people wouldn’t use the app if it was a research experiment, so Specimen was born: an experiment disguised as an addictive iPhone game.

How to beat the game…or at least try

Specimen levels are grouped in spectrums of difficulty. The game starts off easy—each blob is very different, and though you only have seconds to match them, it’s a breeze. Then the levels get harder, but then a little easier, oh but then much harder.

“You always have some hope when you start a spectrum,” Gorochow, the game’s animation designer, said.


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