Checker Shadow
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Applet design: Al Seckel  Programing: ET-Labs, Inc.  CheckerShadow©1997 IllusionWorks, L.L.C.

     Using your mouse, you can draw a rubberband between the light-colored check in the middle of the shadow and any other check. This allows you to compare the color of different checks over the image. Alternatively (by clicking on the button at the bottom of the applet), you can move around a check that is exactly the color of the middle light-colored check, and also compare its color to that of other checks.

The Illusion

     The light-colored check in the middle of the shadow is the same shade of gray as the dark checks outside the shadow. Really!!! This illusion was recently discovered by MIT professor Edward Adelson.

How It Works

     Your visual system needs to determine the color of objects in the world. In this case, the problem is to determine the gray shade of checks on the floor. Just measuring the light coming from a surface (the luminance) is not enough: a cast shadow will dim a surface, so that a white surface in shadow may be reflecting less light than a black surface in full light.

     Your visual system uses several tricks to determine where the shadows are and how to compensate for them, in order to determine the shade of gray paint that belongs to the surface.

     The first trick is based on local contrast. In shadow or not, a check that is lighter than its neighboring checks is probably lighter than average, and vice versa. In this figure, the light check in shadow is surrounded by darker checks. Thus, even though the check is physically dark, it is light when compared to its neighbors. The dark checks outside the shadow, conversely, are surrounded by lighter checks, so they look dark by comparison.

     A second trick is based on the fact that shadows often have sharp edges, while paint boundaries (like the checks) often have sharp edges. Your visual system tends to ignore gradual changes in light level, so that it can determine the color of the surfaces without being mislead by the shadows. In this figure, the shadow looks like a shadow, both because it is fuzzy and because the shadow casting object is visible.

     The paintness of the checks is aided by the form of the X-junctions formed by 4 abutting checks. This type of junction is usually a signal that all the edges should be interpreted as changes in surface color rather than in terms of shadows or lighting.

     As with many so-called illusions, this effect really demonstrates the success rather than the failure of your visual system. Your visual system is not very good at being a physical light meter, but that is not its purpose. The important task is to break the image information down into meaningful components, and thereby perceive the nature of objects in view.

     Thanks to professor Edward Adelson for his kind permission to reprint this illusion and for his explanation.

Entire web site©1997 IllusionWorks, L.L.C.