The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow! – The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow! – Perceptual palettes, part 2: a rainbow puzzle

ROYGBIV or YOGRVIB?

If you are interested in the topic of color palettes for scientific data, and the rainbow in particular, I would say you ought to read this 2007 IEEE visualization paper by Borland and Taylor: Rainbow Color Map (Still) Considered Harmful. It clearly and elegantly illustrates why the rainbow palette should be avoided when displaying scientific data. I like Figure 1 in the paper in particular. The illustration shows how it is easy to order perceptually a set of 4 paint chips of different gray intensity, but not at all easy to order 4 paint chips colored red, green, yellow, and blue. The author’s argument is that the rainbow colors are certainly ordered, from shorter to longer wavelengths, but they are not perceptually ordered. In this post I wanted to extend the chips example to all 7 colors in the rainbow and try to demonstrate the point in a quantitative way.

Here below is a 256-sample rainbow palette I created interpolating between the RGB values for the seven colors of the rainbow red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (ROY G BIV):

On this palette I see a number of perceptual artifacts, the most notable ones being a sharp edge at the yellow and a flat zone at the green. The existence of these edges I tried to explain quantitatively in the first post of this series.

Now, to go back to the experiment, from the original RGB values for the non interpolated colors I created the 7 color chips below . Question: can you order them based on their perceived intensity?

I think if you have full color vision (more on the topic of rainbow and impaired color vision in the next section of this post) eventually you will be able to order them as I did.If not, try now below. In this new image I converted the color chips to gray chips using the values obtained in Matlab with this formula:

INT = (0.2989 * RGB(:,1) + 0.5870* RGB(:,2) + 0.1140 * RGB(:,3))';

Give it a try, then hover with your mouse over the image to read the intensity values.

roygbiv_intensityroygbiv_intensity_values

Not surprisingly, the values are not in any particular order. This reinforces the notion that although the rainbow colors are ordered by increasing wavelength (or decreasing in this case) , they are not perceptually ordered. (See this comment to my previous post). Below I rearranged the gray chips by increasing intensity.

And now I reconverted from gray to RGB colors and adjusted the distance between each pair of chips so that it is proportional to the intensity difference between the chips in the pair (I actually had to artificially change the value for green and orange so they would not overlap). That was an epiphany for me. And the name is funny too, BIV R GOY, or YOG R VIB…

I said that it was an epiphany because I realize the implications of trying to create a palette by interpolating through these colors with those distances. So I did it, and I am showing it below in the top color palette. We jumped out of the frying pan, into the fire! We went from perceptual artifacts that are inherent to the rainbow (reproduced in reverse order from blue to red to facilitate comparison as the bottom palette) to interpolation artifacts in the intensity ordered rainbow. Hopeless!

ROYGBIV puzzle

As if what I have shown in the previous section wasn’t scary enough, I took 7 squares and colored them using the same RGB values for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Then I used the Dichromacy plug-in in ImageJ to simulate how these colors would be seen by a viewer with Deuteranopia (the more common form of color vision deficiency). I then shuffled the squares in random order on a square canvas, and numbered them 1-7 in clockwise order.

Puzzle: can you pair the squares numbered 1 through 7 with the colors R though V? I will give away the obvious one, which is the yellow:

1=Y
2=?
3=?
4=?
5=?
6=?
7=?

Cannot do it? For the solution just hover over the image with your mouse. If you like the animation and would like to use it on your blog, twitter, Facebook, get the GIF file version here. Please be kind enough to link it back to this post.

roygbiv_random_deuteranoperoygbiv_random

Conclusion

When I tried myself I could not solve the puzzle, and that finally convinced me that trying to fix the rainbow was a hopeless cause. Even if we could, it would still confuse a good number of people (about 8% of male have one form or the other of color vision deficiency). From the next post on I will show what I got when I tried to create a better, more perceptual rainbow from scratch.

Related posts (MyCarta)

The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow! – the full series

What is a colour space? reblogged from Colour Chat

Color Use Guidelines for Mapping and Visualization

A rainbow for everyone

Is Indigo really a colour of the rainbow?

Why is the hue circle circular at all?

A good divergent color palette for Matlab

Related topics (external)

Color in scientific visualization

The dangers of default disdain

Color tools

How to avoid equidistant HSV colors

Non-uniform gradient creator

Colormap tool

Color Oracle – color vision deficiency simulation – stand alone (Window, Mac and Linux)

Dichromacy –  color vision deficiency simulation – open source plugin for ImageJ

Vischeck – color vision deficiency simulation – plugin for ImageJ and Photoshop (Windows and Linux)

For teachers

NASA’s teaching resources for grades 6-9: What’s the Frequency, Roy G. Biv?

13 responses to “The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow! – The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow! – Perceptual palettes, part 2: a rainbow puzzle

    • Hi Martin, thanks for the positive feedback. Well, you could use this for a random quiz… 🙂
      In the next post I will introduce my perceptually ordered rainbow, and a few other options that are available that I tweaked. Once you’ve had a chance to see them, I’d be happy to hear your feedback.
      UPDATE – it will be starting post number 4. Number 3 will still be on deconstructing rainbow.

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