Friday, February 27, 2015

The Dress

Late Thursday night, after returning home from a long day at the office, my daughter called me into the kitchen.  "Look at this dad," she said as she shoved a smartphone in front of me.  What's the big deal, I thought, as I looked a picture of a dress.

"What color is it?" my daughter asked.  My wife, who was standing next to my daughter, leaned in to hear my answer.  I responded, "gold and white."  My daughter said emphatically, "See mom!"

"No, no," my wife said insistently, "it's black and blue."

I thought nothing more about the disagreement as I left the kitchen to put the dogs out.  But the next morning I was startled to see that "the dress" was dominating social media.  What had started as a question on Tumblr was now a national obsession.  How could some people see black and blue where I saw gold and white?

I was so skeptical that I decided to do an experiment in my college class.  The students were all up to speed on the dress dispute, and all of them had seen it.  I projected the image on a screen in the classroom and asked the students what they saw.  Of the 20 students sampled, 40% saw black and blue.  I was amazed. 

Our class then talked about how this may be a metaphor for our politically divided country -- and, no matter what you say, people see what they see; nothing will change their mind. 

Of course, the controversy generated tremendous worldwide social media use overnight.  It seemed like everyone was weighing in on Twitter.  The dress had gone viral!  This, it was no surprise to see, meant that news organizations, publications and websites had to ride the trending tide of interest to draw viewers.  For instance, the network and cable morning programs devoted segments to the controversy where anchors disagreed and haggled on air over what the actual colors were. 

The New York Times reports that the dress was worn by a bride at a wedding in Scotland and posted online by a band member.  When no one could agree on the colors, she posted the picture on Tumblr.  It was off to the races!

Scientists and scientific magazines have been weighing in with explanations of what is hard for me to really understand.  Wired magazine quoted one doctor's explanation, "'What's happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you're trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,' says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. 'So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.'"

USA Today reports that the dress is actually black and blue, and it is for sale in the United Kingdom.

So why did the dress become such an obsession?  Maybe it was a welcome diversion from reports of terrorism, government gridlock, or the foul weather.

I guess it all depends on how you see it.

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