A matter of perception

The latest Internet sensation seems to be the stuff that raises questions about what it is that really matters to us human beings. A lady posts a picture of her dress and asks what colour do you see? From the responses, there is a clear separation of respondents into two main streams – those who see in blue and black and the others who see white and gold. I belong to the latter category, which I am led to understand means that I have weaker eyesight.

Really? The mind boggles at the sheer stupidity of trying to use this to filter people into groups. Hasn’t anyone ever heard of the colour-blind? Do you think it takes an Internet meme to tell us that human beings and their ability to perceive the world around them differ in almost as many ways as we can devise tests.


After all perception is what really drives us. Irrespective of which colour we see or don’t see, the fact remains that a proper knowledge of optics will tell you that the colour we actually perceive is the subtractive portion of the light bandwidth that falls on the cloth. What reflects off is what we see. What reflects off is not the colour of the fabric – that is what is absorbed. Already, by this we know that what our eyes perceive is only part of the story.

What then do we say about a car company that is willing to take our perceptions a bit further? Nissan have announced plans to launch glow-in-the-dark paint? Now when we see ghostly hues zipping by on unlit roads we will begin to associate them with automobiles. But won’t that add a further complication for exterior designers who have only just about mastered the complications of using positive and negative surface forms to sculpt their cars. Ambient lighting or the ever-present Sun is what has decided how car forms are shaped. Now if the very skin of the car lights up, will we go back to flat surfaces?

What then happens to colour that changes depending on the source of the incident light? Will the paint look different in LED lighting? Or will it sparkle differently in the Sun?

Perception is also what allows us to believe in the heads-up display. There is a huge degree of comfort in reading a panel – you know that a light-emitting diode or a bulb behind it is communicating through language or graphics. But what do you make of a message that floats, seemingly, in thin air? If you focus on the message it loses clarity – while looking off into the distance is what makes it legible and useful.

This ability of engineering our interfaces with the world depending on how we perceive the world is what brought about both Google glass as well as the immersive gaming headsets. You look at your friends in the middle distance, read their messages in the near zone and a couple of blinks is all it takes for you to photograph them for the cloud and posterity.

Even our acceptance of and increasing use of 3D is a lesson in the value of perception. Until holograms become a reality (another lesson in perception there), our interpretation of depth in a two-dimensional storyboard is governed by polarisation and deliberately mistiming signals to fool our brains into the third dimension.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, has said, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

I say that we should celebrate our differences. If you see blue when I see white, that’s good. Of course the best way to ensure that we all know what the exact colour is can be decided by something as simple as a printer’s colour reference. The driver who is colour-blind usually manages to get by knowing the position of the red bulb in the traffic tree. There are constants that both guide us and allow us to decide on a functional truce.

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