#TheDress

I was asked to comment on the radio today about a dress which is topping the trends of social media in the USA in particular today.

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The dress has sparked controversy because different people say that it is different colours. There is a group who say it is blue and black and another group who say that it is white and gold. What do you think?

I will give my explanation but it is not simple so …

Now, about 1 in 12 of all men in the world are colour blind. But if we consider the rest of the population you may be surprised to know that there is variability in our colour vision. This is mainly due to the colour receptors in our eyes. Put simply, some people have more red receptors and some people have more green receptors, for example. So we know that we don’t all see colour in the same way.

There is a second complexity and that is just because we use different names for a colour doesn’t mean we see it differently. This most often happens with brownish colours where some people will refer to it as more of a green and others will be adamant that it is definitely a brown. So words – colour names in particular – are not always very precise. We can see at least 3 million colours in the world and how many names do we have? A few hundred at least.

There is a third complexity which is that people think the camera never lies – that is, that they take an image of something using their phone and put it on the internet and everyone is seeing a faithful reproduction of the thing they took a picture of. Sadly, the camera does lie. Variability in the light that is used to capture the image, the settings on your display (whether you have a warm white or a cool white, for example) and how bright the light is in the room when you look at your screen – these can all dramatically affect the colour. Take a look at the picture below:

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This is the manufacturer’s photo of the dress. Taken professionally, I think most people would see it as blue and black. But the image that is on the internet is very different. I suspect it was taken in a very bright light and the colours are consequently a bit washed out.

So, in summary, the camera does lie. I think the lighting conditions under which the photo was taken were far from ideal and have changed the colours from how they would have appeared if you had been there. However, that is only half the story. Since people looking at the same image on the same screen are disagreeing with the colours. To fully explain what is going on you need to invoke the knowledge that we can sometimes see colours differently (because of variability from one person to the next) and even if we see the colour the same we might give it a different name (because colour names are crude ways to communicate colour).

Of course, fundamental to this is the idea that things are not coloured at all but your brain constructs a colour from the signals it receives in the eye. This allows us, for example, to discount changes in colour that may occur when the light source changes (this is known as colour constancy). We have evolved to discount the effect of light being bluer or yellower, for example, so that we normally see the colours that the object would have in neutral daylight. In the case of the dress image it may be that people are using different processing strategies and discounting the effect of the light source in different ways.

Which all goes to show that colour is complex. But if you have been reading my blog you already know that, don’t you?

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