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Cynthia Wisehart on color space

As 2022 wraps up, color space is in play. A new study has identified an important error in the 3D mathematical color space. For more than 100 years we used this mathematical space to describe how the eye distinguishes one color from another, and to build electronic color reproduction accordingly. Now it seems the underlying model may be faulty. On the bright side, the research has the potential to boost scientific data visualizations and improve (or completely disrupt) how displays are made. That is, if science can figure out what the color space is, now that it’s not what everyone thought.

So what’s the issue? The new mathematical representation from Los Alamos National Laboratory found that in the existing model, line segments representing the distance between widely separated colors don’t add up correctly using the previously accepted geometry.

This application of geometry was suggested by Bernhard Riemann and developed by Hermann von Helmholtz and Erwin Schrödinger—all giants in mathematics and physics. Ironically their model seems to miss something that painters of the same era understood—that the eye sees color differences in a relative, not mathematical, way. We don’t divide up the difference between two colors symmetrically, so the modeling error compounds the more different the colors are. When it comes to color, we are not simply under the influence of math; our perception is also influenced by psychology and biology. The result—the researchers found—is a kind of diminishing returns approach. People perceive a big difference in color to be less than the sum of the incremental differences that lie between the shades.

For now, the researchers can only say that the model is wrong—they don’t know what the more accurate geometry of color space will be. They speculate there might be just a matter of adding a dampening or weighing function to bring very different colors closer together in the model. But that’s just a first guess.

No matter how subtle the necessary adjustments will need to be, in the world of RGB pixels the effect of a changed color space will be anything but subtle.”

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