AI giving old Perth a splash of colour

WITH the help of artificial intelligence (AI), library archives and out-of-print photo books, local history fan Dallas Robertson is bringing colour to Perth’s past.

Adding colour to black and white photos used to only be possible via a painstaking hand-colouring process. But as the AI gets more advanced the programs have gotten pretty smart about where to add colour.

Mr Robertson has been working on the online “Colour Me Perth” curation for about five years now, working his way through 11,410 images of Perth from archives and out of print photo books. 

The online AI Mr Robertson uses seems to know that when it sees an old photo with a brickwork and frieze that it should apply some subtle manor red colouring to the bricks and a federation cream to the adornments. 

But the AI needs some shepherding. Some things trip it up, Mr Robertson says. 

Sometimes it sees a horizontal surface and assumes “grass”, and suddenly what’s pretty clearly a road turns green. And the program seems to think Model-T Fords were probably yellow, colouring them a pale canary, despite Henry Ford saying a “customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. 

Rarely, there are too many tonal oddities for the photo to be salvaged and published online, but typically Mr Robertson wrangles with the colourised photos in an image processing software to balance out the colours and tones. For many buildings there’s images of them from the colour era to refer to, while for others it’s a best guess. The bot can’t truly know what colour people’s clothes were from a greyscale image, but it makes some pretty plausible guesses of period-appropriate subdued blues and greys, at least convincing enough to evoke the feel of the scene.

“You notice details you might not otherwise see,” Mr Robertson says, as shades of grey that don’t look much different to the human eye are made more distinct and patterns emerge from what was a blurry charcoal palette. 

Mr Robertson has long had an interest in WA history. He was also one of the founders of the Museum of Perth, and has also recreated a snapshot of the colony in 1870 in the video game Minecraft (“Perth in Pixels,” Voice, February 13, 2016). 

He’s also turned the colourisation AI onto some family photos. 

One was a family portrait on an old black and white slide. 

It was only when he let the program add colour that he noticed that his mother was wearing a floral dress. 

The pattern wasn’t obvious to the human eye in the shades of grey in the original, but the computer noticed it, and even gave them flowery colours. 

“All the years I’ve looked at that photo. I’d never seen that before.”

The images of Colour Me Perth are hosted on twitter @ ColourMePerth


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