Thursday, May 17, 2012

Counting Colors: The Truth Behind the Numbers

-Deacon Wardlow

What exactly does it mean when an LED message center manufacturer is selling you on millions or billions of color? If the human eye can only perceive 10 million or so colors, what’s the point of more than that? There are important reasons for understanding the numbers and in the game to win your business some manufacturers don’t play fair.

Every color in a digital image is made up of some combination of the three primary colors of light - red, green and blue: It doesn't matter what color you're looking at on your screen. It's being made up of some combination of those three colors. By using multiple shades of red, green and blue you can create a bigger color palette. 

If all you had was pure red, pure green, and pure blue, the most you could create would be seven different colors, including white if you mixed all three together.

You also include an eighth color: black, which you would get if you completely removed red, green, and blue. These make up the 8 “bits” or shades of color which make up a “regular” message center palette. Multiply Red 256 x Green 256 x Blue 256 and you get a “pure” white made up of over 16 million colors.

Full-Color Reproducibility for 16.77 Million Colors Using 8-bit RGB Color:

  • 8-bit (2^8) = 256 tones
  • 256 tones (R) * 256 tones (G) * 256 tones (B) = 16,777,216 colors
  • 16,777,216 colors = 16.77 million colors

So if a “regular” color palette is made up of 256 tones/shades of Red/Green/Blue, how can you get billions or more colors? While many control systems are only capable of 8-bits. More advanced systems can achieve 12+ bit color palettes (4,096+ tones per Red, Green and Blue). These more advanced systems can honestly claim billions of colors. Many 8-bit systems will use frame rate control (how the LED pulses to create vibrancy/brightness) to “fake” the additional 4+ bits of color. If a manufacturer of displays can change some component to give the appearance of more colors, what’s the difference?

The higher bit, the better the color depth available on a screen. While the human eye can only perceive 10 million (or so) colors, the color depth of an image is perceived in how “sharp” an image looks with contrasting shadows. True color depth is best achieved with a higher-bit system allowing for clearer, crisper images and better color quality. Manipulating frame rates can lead to refresh rate issues which can cause a message center to look “blurry” with poorly defined lines and image quality.

In an apples-to-apples comparison, high quality systems are defined by true color reporting, not by playing with the numbers to give you a false impression. The next time someone plays a numbers game with you, dig into their system to see what they’re trying to draw attention away from. It’s likely they’re trying to flood you with more information and a “bigger is better” mindset to place themselves in a unique position away from the competition. The next time you see big numbers, check the real value under the engine of the system;
find out how many bits their controller really handles. Don’t let people play a numbers game on you.

*Always feel free to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (, please check it out when you have a moment. Advertisements/promotion for your business and inappropriate comments will be deleted.. Thank you!

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

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