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Monday 14 September 2015

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Dressgate: how optical illusion left the world baffled about dress colour

Dressgate left social media users scratching their heads in existential angst

This dress is blue so why do some people see it as white?
This dress is blue so why do some people see it as white? Photo: Tumblr

A Birmingham shop was at the centre of international social media storm after an optical illusion left the world baffled about the colour of one of its dresses.

Millions of Twitter and Facebook users argued as to whether the Roman Originals dress was blue with black lace, or white with gold lace.

The puzzle left social media users scratching their heads in existential angst as each side was convinced they were seeing the correct colours.

Pop singer Taylor Swift tweeted: I don't understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it's a trick somehow. I'm confused and scared.

Kim Kardashian and husband Kanye West could not even agree between themselves what colour it was.

The reality star wrote: "What colour is that dress? I see white & gold. Kanye sees black & blue, who is colour blind?"

The picture was originally taken by Cecilia Bleasdale, who sent it to her daughter Grace to show what she would be wearing to her wedding.

But the dress illusion came to light when wedding singer Caitlin McNeill, 21, posted a picture of the frock on social media page Tumblr after her friend saw different colours in the photo.

The image quickly went viral, as people argued over its colours - and the science behind the debate.

Scientists said that the illusion occurs because of how the human brain is wired to see colour.

Colour is simply a perception made by the brain when light hits the retina at the back of the eye at differing wavelengths. Wavelengths get longer as they move through violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

However when the brain interprets these wavelengths as colour it is also doing something very clever. It is working out how illuminated the colour is by the light around it and subtracting or adding that from the real colour.

It is how it is possible to distinguish between colours in bright sunshine or twilight.

Usually that system works well. But sometimes, as in the case of the Roman Originals dress, the brain gets confused and cannot work out how much light to add or take away .

Some peoples brains interpret the blue colour as shadow on a white dress which is in bright sunlight. Others discount the shadow and see blue and black, the true colour.

Andrew Hanson, past chairman of the Colour Group of Great Britain, said humans are evolutionary programmed to think that objects in shadow are blue.

"When you look at things on a sunny day, things in shadow are lit by the sky and clouds and have a more bluey tinge. It's why snow in the sunshine looks blue in shadow. So when you see the dress you could be forgiven that you are seeing something on a sunny day in shadow, and interpret it as blue.

"We all have memory colours. We know that bananas are yellow for example. Similarly we know that shadow should be blue. It's nothing to do with colour blindness, it's all do to with colour perception. Essentially it is an illusion but people who see white, are actually seeing white, even though it is not really there."

Simon Hall, of the National Physical Laboratory, said the colour temperature of the background was also confusing peoples perception of the dress.

For people viewing it on different screens the colour Temperature of the display backlighting will have an effect, he said.

For people viewing the same monitor the difference is related to colour appearance and the colours surrounding the image. This can have a different effect for different people depending on how they perceive the image. Viewing angle does make a difference on my LCD display.

Professor Stephen Westland, chair of colour science and technology at the University of Leeds, said the way people see colours varies hugely.

He said: "One in 12 men is colour blind. But what people don't know is that even if the rest of us are not colour blind we don't always see colour in the same way.

"The surprising thing is that this doesn't happen more often.

Roman Originals said yesterday that stock had sold out within minutes of the images going viral.

And they are now considering getting a white-and-gold version of the frock tailored because of the huge interest.

"We sold out of the blue one almost immediately within the first 30 minutes, said a spokesman.

"Figures are up 347 per cent on what we were expecting and beginning to rival where we were on Black Friday, with hundreds of thousands of visits to the blue dress alone.

"People think if they take a photo of something, people will see the same thing but of course that is not true."

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