The Dress: A lesson in lighting, says US energy secretary

By now, most of you have probably weighed in on one of the 21st century's most vexing questions: what colour is The Dress?

You know. The white and gold one. Its picture began circulating on social media a week or two ago. White and gold? 'No way!' thundered millions of incredulous viewers, who see it as black and blue.

It's a wonder the internet hasn't buckled under Dress traffic. Everyone seems to be looking at it and talking about it. Including US energy secretary Ernest Moniz.

Not that Moniz, a physicist, is offering any in-depth explanation as to why this garment has polarised us into colour camps.

Rather, he has taken the opportunity to shamelessly plug LED lighting. Moniz tweeted to say The Dress reminds us that 'good lighting is everything'. His tweet (below) includes a hash tag for LEDs. It links through to a Department of Energy page on LEDs and OLEDs which lauds DOE development but that disappointingly offers no specific insight on the relationship of LED lighting to The Dress.

The implication is that good lighting – i.e. good LED lighting – could help alleviate any confusion over an object's true colours.

Ironically, the tweet also reminds us that, beyond the obsessed world of The Dress, LEDs could actually be part of the general problem of colour perception. For all of their merits such as energy efficiency and reputed decades of longevity, LEDs still lag behind incandescent lighting in their ability to render colour. Their 'colour rendering index' is improving, but still has a way to go. (The conventional lighting industry points out that incandescent bulbs such as halogen generally have a CRI of 100, compared to 80 for LEDs - a sizeable gap).

As for The Dress, lighting does indeed play a role in the white/gold vs. blue/black standoff. But not exactly the type of lighting that Moniz implies.

Some of the better explanations that I've seen boil down to this: the human brain knows whether an object is bathed in a lot of bright light, obscured in relative dark, or whether the light that's hitting it is somewhere in between. The amount of light that falls on an object can distort its colour appearance (too much light can bleach out an object's apparent colour, for instance). Like an automatic camera, the brain constantly adjusts to minimize these distortions.

The blue and black Dress (yes, I accept that it's blue and black, although I see white and gold) happens to stand in a mix of bright backlight and dark front shadow. Some brains overcompensate – like an unruly Photoshop – to turn the thing into white and gold (see the video below for a more thorough explanation).

So that is what's behind this internet storm of stripes. But who could blame the energy secretary for dressing it up as an LED story. We excuse you for the bum steer, Dr Moniz; many of us latch on to media crazes to promote our own ideas and projects.

But do us a favour:  Please keep the DoE labs working on LED colour rendering.


Top photo is from Google+


The tweeting secretary:

Tweet is a screenshot from Twitter


Undressing The Dress:

 Video is from AsapSCIENCE via YouTube

Comments 3

Responding to Roger van der Heide: Good to hear from you Roger and thanks for your insights. Now, here's the thing: Yes, LEDs CAN render colour well, but, um, not at average household prices, n'est-ce pas? I had the good fortune of seeing proof of their impressive colour capabilities at the newly LED-lit Sistine Chapel last October. Seeing is believing. I believe. But I don't have the Vatican's money! Thus, my Michelangelos won't look as red as the Pope's! I haven't seen the Rembrandts and Vermeers since the Rijksmuseum's makeover, but I imagine they look pretty sumptuous, as you and others have noted.... As for The Dress, I think you and I are saying the same thing. Thanks for reaffirming!

So even you guys have been captivated by the dress... Very good! But the dress as a way to tell that LED color rendition still needs improvement... Hmmm Mark, I have read way better stories in Luxreview! Good you demistify Moniz his tweet, well done. Me too I had a lot of traffic to my website thanks to the dress, but at least I have explained it. You can read here why different people see different colors: ... And see the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, all-illuminated using LEDs from Lumileds, to experience how fantastic LED color rendition can be. I have never seen so much detail in the Rembrandts and Vermeers. As some prominent independent lighting designers told me: it looks better than tungsten. Yes it does, even though some hate to say that. As lighting designers, we have a great responsibility. Because we "let people look with our eyes". I think that is critical to show to those who feel they should become an LD: keep watching, keep being curious, keep asking, keep learning. And that's also the value of the dress. For one day, the whole world was into color rendition!

And we should remember that too much artificial blue light is not good for our sleep. Human eyes has special cells which aren't used for seeing - their only function is controlling the biological clock. They are sensitive for these wavelengths, so colour temperature of night lighting shouldn't be too high. There are also some programs which reduce colour temperature and brightness of screens automatically at night, for example f.lux (for Windows), Redshift (open-source, for Linux), and Twilight (for Android). I'm using them for a long time and it works.

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