The ephemeral nature of color in VR

How our eyes’ adaptations affect our art

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ephemeral

Blog post by Rose Sebastian


Virtual reality artists have the freedom to manipulate viewers’ perceptions of colors by controlling how many colors and what colors are shown at once (check out our earlier blog for more). They also face a limitation that other artists don’t, which is that color perception is ephemeral. Our eye’s retinal chemicals are constantly adjusting to visual input. This means that even if the physical colors on the screen stay the same they will appear to the viewer to be shifting. Everyone has noticed this phenomena - if you leave a brightly lit room to walk into a dark one, at first you perceive blackness, but after a while your retinal chemicals rebalance and you will be able to see things that were invisible before. Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark room, having someone turn on a light can temporarily cause a blinding sensation of brightness because the retinal chemicals are now adjusted for darkness. In the absolute blackness of an HMD our eyes will adapt and view static colors as changing.

This can make it harder for an artist working in VR. There are no fixed formulas to use and a color or color combination that the viewer perceives one way now will look different to them later and change based on what else they have seen. The good news is that the artist’s eyes are adjusting at the same rate as the viewer, which means that they share the same color experience. The bad news is that if the artist doesn’t have immediate control over their visual environment, seeing the same thing as the viewer won’t help the artist. The goal is for the artist to work in real time with immediate control over colors so that they can create the most powerful experience for the viewer.

Our visual music system gives us immediate control over the colors and the ephemerality of colors has stopped being a problem and started to become a new way to express our art. Working with the ephemerality of colors lets us create color experiences for the viewer that are far more interesting and stimulating than can be found in static art.