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

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 James Bareham

Erica Gorochow, Charlie Whitney, and Sal Randazzo developed Specimen at the New Museum’s New Inc. technology and artist incubator in Manhattan.

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.

If you’re doing well, the spectrum of colors of the blobs inside the petri dish will shrink. Soon, they’ll all look similar in color to each, though each blob is actually a different hue. As of now, only a handful of people have beaten the game.

specimen primary Specimen

Some players suggest turning off the lights or blurring your eyes to see the color variations more clearly.

Early players developed hacks for conquering levels: Some recommended turning the brightness on your iPhone screen as high as it will go, while others pause and unpause the game “because they think that gives them an advantage,” programmer and designer Charlie Whitney said. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. Playing with the lights off in your room or purposefully blurring your eyes can also help you match the specimen to the background.

To keep you motivated, Whitney designed the blobs to have some personality. They don’t just sit static in the petri dish; they move around at random and seem as friendly as blobs possibly can.

But eventually, when frustration finally wins out, you will want to kill those blobs with fire. That’s where the music comes in.

specimen 3 James Bareham

The sound designers behind Two Dots created the music for Specimen.

Music to keep you moving

Gorochow enlisted her friends Cody Uhler and Ross Wariner, composers and sound designers who created the soundtrack for Two Dots, to set the mood for Specimen.

If you’re anything like me, you play games with the sound turned off. But Specimen’s music is a mood-booster, especially when you keep dying.

“It’s quirky, oddly groovy,” Uhler said. “The grooviness paired with the visuals make me think of a lava lamp sometimes. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

specimen 2 James Bareham

Specimen’s creators told Cody Uhler, left, and Ross Wariner, right, to think organic and amorphous when creating the game’s soundtrack. The result sounds vaguely like being inside a lava lamp.

It’s a good thing. The blobs are jelly-like, and the sound associated with tapping them makes you feel like you’re popping bubble wrap. The Specimen team told Uhler and Wariner to think “organic, science-y, amorphous.” The resulting three pieces of synthesizer-made music loop together to create a vaguely psychedelic experience, which might sound strange until you start playing.

“Because it’s such a brutal game, it was important that the music was something that would get you into a flow state,” Gorochow said. “It had to be something that pulled you in and helped you forget how much time had passed. I think they got it there.”

The music inspires you to keep playing, and the more you play, the more anonymized data the Specimen team can use to figure out differences in color perception. Gorochow, Randazzo, and Whitney are envisioning what’s next for Specimen—possibly an Android version of the game, but also something much larger. Literally. Imagine a Specimen installation in an art museum, like the grand piano keys at FAO Schwarz, but instead of running across the ivories, you’re tapping blobs. Specimen is an anomaly in the App Store: a game rooted in art and science with a larger purpose than just raking in cash. That it proves both fun and challenging to play is a testament to its creators.

This story, "Meet Specimen, an iOS game that proves you can't see color as well as you thought" was originally published by Macworld.

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