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New studies reveal 'the dress' was groundbreaking

Three months after "the dress" sent the Internet into a viral, color-confused tizzy, three separate studies published Thursday in Current Biology, a scientific journal, reveal reasons why the dress appeared differently to the human eye. Several of the studies' authors find this case of the viral photo to be unique.

"I've never seen anything like this in the case of color vision," Michael Webster, director of the neuroscience program at the University of Nevada, Reno, told CNBC of the blue and blackor white and golddress.

Webster said he was "the last one" to find out about the dress debacle; he received messages from students in his color perception class, asking him to take a look.

What color is the dress?

Webster's study, in which he recorded 250 students' perceptions of a projected image of the dress, showed the students were generally split between identifying the stripes as blue or white. But when Webster manipulated the images so that the blue and white stripes were inverted, students overwhelmingly viewed the dress as yellow and black.

The reason for this, Webster found, is because of the ambiguous, sometimes confusing effect that shadows can have on color.

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"We found that surfaces are much more likely to be perceived as white or gray," said the study, "when their color is varied along bluish directions, compared with equivalent variations along yellowish (or reddish or greenish) directions."

Webster had never seen the community of vision scientists and neuroscientists "working together like this."

"I've never seen that in science before," he said.

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In a second study conducted at Wellesley College, neuroscientist Bevil Conway launched an online survey of over 1,400 people, 300 of whom had never seen the dress, and found a large group of the answers he received was "blue and brown."

Originally, Conway said he had seen a blue and brown dress. These differences, this study found, were because of the eye's perception of light and, secondarily, the use of language to describe the appearance of the dress.

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Since the original question on social media that arose was "alternative-forced-choice," meaning those surveyed had to pick from two pre-assigned options, the Internet became divided between these two categories.

In this study, which was a "free-response survey," most people, regardless of whether or not they had previously seen the image, "reported white/gold or blue/black, but some said blue/brown," the study from Wellesley found. "On re-test, some subjects reported a switch in perception, showing the image can be multistable."

Both Webster and Conway said the issue of "Dressgate" inspired them to explore future experiments in color perception.

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In the third study, conducted at Giessen University in Germany, "measured color matches on a calibrated screen for two small groups of observers" who had reported seeing different colors in the dress, the report states.

Karl Gegenfurtner, a psychology professor at the university, led the study and wrote that the differences between the perceptions in the two groups "arose mainly from differences in lightness, rather than chromaticity of the colors they adjusted to match the dress." The team speculated that the confusion came from the colors of the dress so closely matching the distribution of reflection in natural daylight.

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"When I was first shown the image, I said, 'Well, it's a pretty crappy photograph and I wouldn't spend a lot of time thinking about it," said Conway, who also teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Social media often deals in fluff, so people are captivated by this crappy image," Conway told CNBC. "It wasn't until a week or two later until we realized there was much more here."

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