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Devil(ish Illusion) in a Blue (and Black) Dress

by Alison Hudson

February 27, 2015

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Donate Yesterday was a momentous moment for the Internet. Not because we won Net Neutrality; not because the 24-hour news cycle chose to devote all their resources to following two llamas around Arizona; but because we all had a night-long freak-out about a dress and in the process learned a little something about color theory and optical illusions.

If you missed out on the fervor over the dress, don't feel bad. It probably means you had actual things to do with your life on a Thursday night. But if, like me, you were trying to enjoy a quiet night at home, and you just happened to be browsing Twitter or Tumblr for the latest on the llama drama, you almost certainly got caught up in the crazy.It was a drama so pervasive that Taylor Swift even Tweeted about it; and that's when you know it's serious.

Let's establish one thing here, for sure: the dress is black and blue. That has been confirmed by Amazonand the company itself, who is already taking advantage of the hype to drive sales.So why did so many people see the dress as white and gold?

Thankfully, the speed of the Internet is such that the science of the dress was quickly laid out. Wired did the science quite well (and was one of the first I saw to post a definitive explanation). Vice also managed to tap a color expert on short notice for an opinion.It turned out to be a true treachery of images sort of problem. Thedresswas blue and black; but thepicture of the dresswas not so clear cut.

In short, the problem works out like this: the dress is really, actually blue and black, but the quality of the color in thepicture of the dress, as well asthe circumstances surrounding one's viewing of it can quite literally change the color perceived. The phenomenonbegins with the lighting at the time the picture was taken -- bright, warm light with lots of soft shadows produces a lot of yellow/orange tint that fades and grays cool colors like blue and black. The technologyone usesto view the picture also comes into play; a lower quality screen viewed at an angle, or a screen with brightness set high, or a cheap phone screen with poor color correction, or even common glare can all shift the color displayed to the viewer, as can the lighting situation within which the picture is viewed (screens wash out color in bright lighting). These many variables can literally change the wavelengths of light that reach our eyes ... and then variances in the way our eyes read those wavelengths, variances caused by genetics and damage and even the kind of corrective lenses we may be wearing.

So yes, the dress is blue and black, but that does not mean your Aunt Velma isinsane for thinking otherwise, nor does it mean that TeamLeftshark034 wastrolling you when he insisted that it was white and declared anyone who thought it was blue "worse than an idiot". You may take solace, however, in the fact that, in the face of poor lighting, dodgy screen settings, and genetic variety,you got it right.

Unless you thought it was white and gold. Then you're a heretic and should burn accordingly.

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by Alison Hudson

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