"The Dress that Broke the Internet" - The Problem of Online Color, and How Kokko Can Solve It

By now we are certain you have seen "the dress," and like most you likely have had endless debates about it's color. Ever since singer Caitlin McNeill posted this photo of the dress to Tumblr, people have been debating what they see. Is it a white dress with gold trim? Or a blue dress with black trim? It's the debate that dominated Twitter and the news, and everywhere on the Internet making people very emotional. Truth is — there really is indeed a scientific reason for this phenomenon as pointed out in a Wired.com article by Adam Rogers appropriately titled, "The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress." Since we at Kokko are crazy about color science, we decided to dig a little deeper and ask our own experts their opinions on "The Dress that Broke the Internet."

Let's Ask an Expert

We asked Professor Sabine Süsstrunk — who leads the Images and Visual Representation Group (IVRG) in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) — to comment on the phenomenon. Some of Professor Süsstrunk's main research areas are in computational photography, color imaging, and image quality metrics, and according to her, the problem is a combination of exposure and context. How we see the colors in this [overexposed] photo is dependent on a confusing lighting situation — and how much of the background we notice:

"This dress controversy illustrates how complex it is to guess the "real" color of anything online. In this case, the truth of the optical solution is pretty simple: the dress is the only object in this scene. The image exposure and resulting white balancing has reduced the blue in the image. Finally, the display device's presentation of the image made additional white balancing choices which further removed blue from the image. You can see how overexposed the background is in this image so the white balancing was clearly off if we consider the entire scene."

Professor Süsstrunk's explanation illustrates an underlying problem: When we look at photos online, it's almost impossible to see what the "real" colors are of anything. We are always guessing — and seeing colors differently than each other — even if the differences aren't as obvious as the white/blue conundrum of this particular dress.

Why Can't We Get Accurate Color Online?

There's more to this problem: The photos you see online have several opportunities to veer away from their true colors. Nina Bhatti, CEO of Kokko, Inc. and inventor of the company's color matching technology, explains the four major steps every photo takes to get into your web browser (and how each one can bring it's own errors):

1. The object was photographed in a specific lighting condition and this can affect the appearance of the object.
2. Cameras have complex algorithms in them to take the energy from the imaging sensors and synthesize the image. Most images are represented as a series of pixels each with a red, green, and blue (RGB) value. Along the way the image is white balanced, enhanced, and in some cases impacted by the actual content of the image — i.e. a landscape will cause different color balancing schemes to be applied. In this case the bright blue is corrected to a less saturated blue (see how the true color is already getting modified?)
3. Images can be further modified in the creative steps in production using tools such as Photoshop.
4. Finally, the photo is rendered for a display device and in this case the color balancing reduced the blue yet again resulting in even less blue.

It's like a game of telephone where each step is an interpretation of the "true color" which in the end, just like in the game, you can end up with very different final results.

Anyone who's dependent on color reproduction for their living or for reputation knows the limitations of control on others' processes. Meli Pennington, Director of Makeup Artistry at ColorSisters, a color accurate beauty app by Kokko launching in beta in April 2015, knows this problem all too well:

"I can't control what photographers do in post-production. Photographers can't control the creative director's decisions. And no one can control the display settings for individual users. It's a nightmare."

Kokko Has Invented a Solution to the Digital Color Trust Problem

There's a lot of "pixelate and pray" going on in the worlds of e-commerce, design, and beauty. But it doesn't have to be that way. Kokko's color technology solves this problem by introducing color standards into photo capture to give consumers color confidence. Kokko's first app, ColorSisters, will help women buy color cosmetics, bringing color accuracy to beauty. There will be more to come to help bridge the color trust gap between producers in and customers in home design and fashion.

Oh, and by the way, Caitlin confirmed, the dress in the now famous photo is actually blue and black. Just thought you'd like to know.