Sensors Mag

And I Say to Myself, What a Colorful World

April 11, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors

Until I read a newspaper story the other day, I hadn't given much thought about the degree to which color had replaced draftsmanship as a way to convey information. Especially technical data. In a bit I'm going to tell you about a technology that could be really helpful to engineers, electricians, and weather forecasters who rely on data coming in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most of us see the world in color and, yes, dream in color too. (Black and white dreams are as improbable as dreaming in a foreign language.) Yet, approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women are functionally colorblind. This can present a bigger problem than finding out that your tie is fighting your shirt or your jacket is shouting at your pants.

Colorful Evolution

Over the centuries, color has been for the most part a decorative element that drove up the cost of maps, books, and other documents. I have some maps that aren't all that old, and yet the rivers aren't blue. They are shown in their wanderings and simply labeled, for instance, "Tombigbee R." Laying color into a printed work was a tedious and labor-intensive process. The acme of the draftsman's art is surely Minard's graph of Napoleon's Russian campaign, conveying a wealth of detailed information and all achieved in black and white. (Thanks for finding that for me, Melanie!) I doubt that anyone could create anything like it today.

When cheap color printing became commercially available the initial results were often so out of registration that you thought you were seeing double, (remember?), but they nevertheless brightened up the front page of your newspaper. Then came CAD systems, and then color printers you could afford even for personal use. So what the revolution that brought inexpensive color has meant is this: no one teaches or creates classical schematics now. Nor do they need to. Nor would that discipline do the job today. Color is the way to go. It's a natural. But back to those who can't distinguish red from green and are trying to debug a complex circuit.

Something Better

eyePilot, developed by Tenebraex Corp., is in a sense a form of machine vision consisting of software that that examines the pixels that lie beneath a window and makes appropriate changes to the perceived image that allow the viewer to see it in color. This device is an excellent example of one technology's necessitating another, with neither's being a fad or pointless gizmo.

Given the complexity of the circuits now being built, eyePilot strikes me as offering tremendous help to engineers trying to trace this and that in a schematic whose designers have abandoned classical symbols for color. Hey! We could even reintroduce color coding to resistors, which now carry microscopic numerals (as the incomparable Ed Ramsden brought to my attention).

Maybe for Everyone?

The same technology could in principle be extended to other pursuits as well. You who have given up on NOAA's weather maps could finally see what's going on in Kansas and about to visit Connecticut. Those charts now carry maybe 20 colors where once it was all monochromatic. Of course, NOAA has a lot more data for you of late. Electricians wiring smart houses could make sense of the color schematics that have replaced the two-toned versions of yore. And those who study maps for pleasure or to plan out a road trip would find their viewing enhanced and stand less of a chance of directing themselves into a river instead of onto the highway.

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