Blue/Black or White/Gold? #TheDress Photo Illustrates An Important Visual Perception Principle

Collage of 3 photos of #TheDress
Click to enlarge in a new window

Much has been written about just what colors #TheDress are, whether it’s blue & black, or like we first saw it, white and gold. We’re going to have a little Friday fun and show how this actually illustrates a pretty important visual perception principle, as explained by two neuroscience experts. To illustrate this, we assembled a collage of 3 copies of the photo, with the original in the middle, and two versions where only the blue is shown, and only the black is shown. Here is the explanation of how the eye perceives color from reflected light:

From Wired: The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress

…Light enters the eye through the lens—different wavelengths corresponding to different colors. The light hits the retina in the back of the eye where pigments fire up neural connections to the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes those signals into an image. Critically, though, that first burst of light is made of whatever wavelengths are illuminating the world, reflecting off whatever you’re looking at. Without you having to worry about it, your brain figures out what color light is bouncing off the thing your eyes are looking at, and essentially subtracts that color from the “real” color of the object. “Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” says Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.” (Neitz sees white-and-gold.)

Usually that system works just fine. This image, though, hits some kind of perceptual boundary. That might be because of how people are wired. Human beings evolved to see in daylight, but daylight changes color. That chromatic axis varies from the pinkish red of dawn, up through the blue-white of noontime, and then back down to reddish twilight. “What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.” (Conway sees blue and orange, somehow.)

Here is another photo of #TheDress posted by Scottish folk singer Caitlin McNeill; and also a screen grab of the catalogue page from British online retailer Roman Originals:

Click image to go to catalogue page

Click image to go to catalogue page

colorblindOf course, this being Friday we can’t resist injecting a little canine humour into our post…

Finally, we’re not going to bore you with the back story behind #TheDress, other than to comment that The Big Winners are the aforementioned McNeill, and Roman Originals. If you’d like to read more, see Scottish folk singer who started Internet sensation over #TheDress says frock is ‘obviously’ blue and black in the NY Post.





“Beam me up one last time, Scotty”

Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931 – February 27, 2015)Click to read his NY Times obituary

Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931 – February 27, 2015)
Click to read his NY Times obituary

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About the author

Dan Schwartz

Electrical Engineer, via Georgia Tech


  1. Peter Weis
    February 27, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    I think we are over-complicating the explanations.
    If you look at other renderings of the dress in different colors, and you watch the red flower in the background, you will see that it changes color, too. So the pictures have been manipulated.

    • Dan Schwartz
      February 27, 2015 at 9:07 pm

      Peter, I know you’re a fellow Engineer: You’re on the right track, but it’s more benign. When one shoots a digital photo — and unless you’re saving the file in CCD-RAW for further processing! — the in-camera processor tries to guess on white balance along the “daylight” (yellow-blue) chromatic axis, before lossy JPEG compression was applied.

      The particular snapshot — The one in question and the first in the article — was indeed “photoshopped” but in the camera’s image processor, not nefariously afterwards as a hoax. Tonight on ABC News they ran a segment on it, and also quickly showed how the perceived colors can shift just by adjusting the brightness on a mobile phone display.

      What’s more, if you’re familiar with color profiles used in graphics/prepress shops and photo labs, you’d know that since the mass introduction of LCD displays a few years ago, color rendition has really gone all over the map, as nobody uses a monitor color calibrator any longer.

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