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Detecting natural changes of cone–excitation ratios in simple and complex coloured images.

11 November 1997


Ratios of excitations in each cone–photoreceptor class produced by light reflected from pairs of surfaces in a scene are almost invariant under natural illuminant changes. The stability of these spatially defined ratios may explain the remarkable ability of human observers to efficiently discriminate illuminant changes from changes in surface reflectances. Spatial cone–excitation ratios are not, however, exactly invariant. This study is concerned with observers' sensitivity to these invariance violations. Simulations of Mondrian paintings with either 49 or two natural surfaces under Planckian illuminants were presented as images on a computer–controlled display in a two–interval experimental design: in one interval, the surfaces underwent an illuminant change; in the other interval, the surfaces underwent the same change, but the images were then corrected so that, for each cone class, ratios of excitations were preserved exactly.

Although the intervals with corrected images corresponded individually to highly improbable natural events, observers systematically misidentified them as containing the illuminant changes, the probability of error increasing as the violation of invariance in the other interval increased. For the range of illuminants and surfaces tested, sensitivity to violations of invariance was found to depend on cone class: it was greatest for long–wavelength–sensitive cones and least for short–wavelength–sensitive cones. Spatial cone–excitation ratios, or some closely related quantities, seem to be the cues preferred by observers for making inferences about surface illuminant changes.


Nascimento, S.M. and Foster, D.H., 1997. Detecting natural changes of cone–excitation ratios in simple and complex coloured images. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 264(1386), pp.1395-1402.

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