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CxF3 and Color Management – exciting things to come

In this article, David Zwang looks at the evolution of Color Management in light of the recent approval of CxF3 as a standard by the ISO, what exciting new things it can bring to the process of Color Management in design and production, and what the future holds.

By David Zwang
Published: June 23, 2015

Color Management has been around in many forms for a long time. In the early days of color reproduction, whether it was photographic or lithographic, it was centered around process control and learned practices. When CEPS (Computer Electronic Prepress Systems) were introduced in the late 1970’s, we found that we had new ways to structure the management of color, although they were processes that were proprietary to each of the systems. Then in 1993, with the advent and increased use of desktop (non-proprietary) design and production systems, eight industry vendors founded the International Color Consortium (ICC). Their goal was to establish a way to match colors across disparate devices, whether they be printers, monitors, capture devices (scanners and cameras), etc. The result was a process utilizing ICC profiles that translates color from different devices with different color spaces to each other through the use of a generic profile connection space (PCS). 

As we continue to use digital tools for reproduction, it starts to further move our definition of what reproduction means well beyond color, or what we were looking at in the early stages of digital reproduction for capture, print and display, and even beyond what is addressed in CxF.

The worldwide adoption of the work of the ICC wasn’t as fast as many had hoped for, or as transparent a process as many had envisioned; however, in the end, it really has had a significant impact on the way that we all capture and reproduce color. As we began to settle in with this new standardized way of controlling and translating device color information, we started to realize that there were many other factors that affect how we communicate color information. First of all, we do use on a regular basis ‘special’ (spot) colors that fall outside of the normal ‘process colors’ of CMYK covered in the current ICC processes. And whether those are named colors like those from Pantone, Toyo, DIC, etc., or colors that are selected through spectral measurement, it is important that they all reproduce accurately. But we also have different media characteristics and even viewing conditions that really aren’t addressed through the work of the ICC. So those challenges needed to be addressed.

Gretag Macbeth (now X-Rite) saw those shortcomings, and in 2002 published a white paper on CxF (Color Exchange Format) describing a solution to these problems, with a forward-looking approach that even went beyond those specific shortcomings. According to Dr. Francis Lamy, who was the EVP and CTO at Gretag Macbeth at that time and now holds the same position at X-Rite, they felt that there was a need to move from a company that provides node solutions to a company that can provide more complete workflow solutions. CxF was envisioned as the core technology that, in collaboration with their many OEM partners, could make that happen.

CxF designed to take digital color communication to a whole new level

In that first white paper, the proposition was described as follows; “CxF is a new standard allowing seamless, worldwide digital communication of all commercially significant aspects of spot colors. Furthermore, CxF is defined in a completely open way so that all aspects of a color can be communicated, even when the application and the color communication features required are unknown.”

That’s a fairly significant statement. So, what does CxF3 bring to the table? In my article on Packaging Standards and Futures, I detailed how CMYK process equivalents don’t really supply a solution to all color reproduction needs of, and while named colors (like Pantone, etc.) are one way of describing special color information, they really don’t provide a complete or open and standardized way of addressing the needs of blind exchange in packaging production, or the many other areas where brand and other special color are used.

With the new combined X-Rite Pantone company, there aren’t a lot of companies that have the intellectual breadth or market penetration in the color space that can take on and standardize the requirements of color communication and reproduction.

The CxF3 functionality is more completely described in a recent X-Rite CxF Overview; “CxF can include spectral color values, named colors such as PANTONE®, color spaces and appearance effects (specific lighting conditions, type of substrate, type of ink, density, opacity, transparency of the color, gloss, texture, position and shape of color patches), as well as commercial aspects, mathematical, optical conditions, etc. CxF enhances existing standards, like PANTONE, by bringing a new set of dimensions to the colors that can be transmitted across workflows, in any global production supply chain.” So in effect, it takes a much more complete approach to color reproduction than what we currently accomplish with ICC profiles.

CxF3, which is an XML-based standard, has gone through many revisions since the initial release of the specification, and its latest version, the now ISO standardized version (ISO 1792-1:2015), has been designed for a wider and non-proprietary audience. CxF, in its pre standard version, has already been adopted and implemented for years by a number of software and hardware vendors through the use of the X-Rite SDK. However, we can expect to see a lot more exciting implementations since it is now an ISO standard. 

What’s next on the Color Management horizon?

As we continue to use digital tools for reproduction, it starts to further move our definition of what reproduction means well beyond color, or what we were looking at in the early stages of digital reproduction for capture, print and display, and even beyond what is addressed in CxF.

Expanding our attention beyond color toward appearance, we begin to enter the next frontier. Looking at 3D printing (which to me and many is really a misnomer), what we see is an extension of digital design and manufacturing. As we move in that direction, there is a real need to find a standardized way to further describe the characteristics of a surface beyond just color. 

AxF (Appearance exchange Format), the new appearance format from X-Rite, was developed with that in mind. It combines measured BRDF (Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function) and BTF (Bidirectional Texture Function) information, to move us beyond the 2 dimensional world that is common in print. It addresses viewing context as well as the third dimension of texture. BRDF addresses the reflectance of a target as a function of illumination geometry and viewing geometry. BTF is a 7 dimensional function which depends on planar texture coordinates as well as on view and illumination spherical angles, all of which is obtained as a set of several thousand color images of a material sample captured with different camera and light positions. Interestingly, BTF’s current application is a photorealistic material rendering of objects in virtual reality systems.

While still relatively new, AxF, and Total Appearance Capture, is currently filling the needs of a variety of companies, including animators, automotive and appliance manufacturers, and others who utilize digital design and production systems. But it could just as easily support specialty printing requirements. Companies currently supporting AxF include NVIDIA, Autodesk, and others. Exciting times are ahead…

Conclusion

Color Management is, and will always be, an integral part of the creation and reproduction process. Whether it is for design, capture, print, display or digital manufacturing, continuous improvement of the creation and reproduction process will enable us all to provide more realistic representations and better meet customer expectations. Furthermore, doing this in a standardized way will help quicken the pace of adoption.

Most of us are very familiar with X-Rite as the company who makes measurement instruments for color quality control processes, and Pantone as the company who produces those books of spot colors that are regularly used to specify and communicate between designers and production operations. In 2007, they became one company. With the new combined X-Rite Pantone company, there aren’t a lot of companies that have the intellectual breadth or market penetration in the color space that can take on and standardize the requirements of color communication and reproduction.

I truly believe we owe X-Rite a round of gratitude for developing the base concept for these types of standards. Granted, they do stand to profit from the sale of tools that support the standards, but it sometimes it takes a company with the market penetration of an X-Rite to make this happen. In fact I joked with Dr. Lamy that since X-Rite is the leader, by far, he now has an obligation to make sure that all of this happens…the pressure is on!

 

David Zwang travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. He specializes in production optimization, strategic business planning, market analysis, and related services to companies in the vertical media communications market. Clients have included printers, manufacturers, retailers, publishers, premedia and US Government agencies. He can be reached at david@zwang.com.

 

Discussion

By Gordon Pritchard on Jun 23, 2015

Now, if only they could standardize the viewer. ;-)

Great report.

 

By Jinkai Qian on Jun 25, 2015

Exactly like Gordon commented, printing ultimately is a combination of objective science and subjective art. Thanks for the article!

 

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