Experts explain the ‘colour mystery’ about ‘The Dress’

Yes, ‘The Dress’ is actually blue and black, but experts now explain why somebody sees it white and gold and why someone else sees it in its ‘true’ colours.

Picture of 'The Dress' which divided people about its colour (credit: Tumblr)

Picture of ‘The Dress’ which divided people about its colour (credit: Tumblr)

On February 26th the picture of a cocktail dress, originally uploaded on Tumblr, went viral. It managed – somehow unexpectedly – to divide people on a very simple question: “What colour is the dress?” Some saw it white and gold, while some blue and black. Some saw it in either one of the two combinations of colours at different times. So, what’s the deal with this dress?

The strange phenomenon is due to “white balance” or “colour balance” in the picture, an effect which can alter the relative perception of other surrounding colours. It is specific to that particular photograph, as proven by the fact that the dress appears unequivocally black and blue – its actual colour combination – on the (different) website picture that shows the dress for sale. “A couple of things are going on, and not all of them involve how our eyes and brains see color” – James Pomerantz, a professor of psychology at Rice University and an expert on visual perception, says. “As people who have studied visual perception or photography or painting know, there is a problem that eyes and cameras struggle with called ‘white balance’. If you look at your camera closely, there may even be a white-balance control on it that makes this setting for you”.

Bryan Jones, a retinal neuroscientist at the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center, adds that the colour balance when the image was taken was probably off “given that it looks like there is some daylight coming in from behind the dress, which can seriously mess with even professional cameras”. “LCD manufacturers will program in different default white points that can vary” – comments Jones, which means that the colours of the dress on one screen can look different than the colours of the dress on another screen.

This explanation, however, does not account for those who see the dress differently on the same screen, but at different times. “That suggests there are psychophysical issues at play” – writes Jones. “Our moment to moment reality is literally synthesized on the fly, and our brain in some circumstances can decide something is one thing and then another”. “Our brain relies on context to inform its decisions, so what people rely on for context in this case may be different. It may be the colour/white balance of the image that they rely upon from the background that gives them a context for the colour in the foreground” – He continues. “There are also times when our brains will fabricate information that we may be missing to fill in the gaps”.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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