The International Commission on Illumination is an organization that sets international standards related to light and color. Though founded in 1913, "1931" refers to the date of its eighth session, during which the members established an international agreement on colorimetric specification.
The CIE 1931 color spaces were the first defined quantitative links between distributions of wavelengths in the electromagnetic visible spectrum and physiologically perceived colors in human color vision. The mathematical relationships that define these color spaces are essential tools for color management, important when dealing with color inks, illuminated displays, and recording devices such as digital cameras.
The CIE 1931 RGB color space and CIE 1931 XYZ color space were created by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) in 1931. They resulted from a series of experiments done in the late 1920s by William David Wright using ten observers and John Guild using seven observers. The experimental results were combined into the specification of the CIE RGB color space, from which the CIE XYZ color space was derived.
The CIE 1931 color spaces are still widely used, as is the 1976 CIELUV color space.
The human eye with normal vision has three kinds of cone cells that sense light, having peaks of spectral sensitivity in short ("S", 420 nm – 440 nm), middle ("M", 530 nm – 540 nm), and long ("L", 560 nm – 580 nm) wavelengths. These cone cells underlie human color perception in conditions of medium and high brightness; in very dim light color vision diminishes, and the low-brightness, monochromatic "night vision" receptors, denominated "rod cells", become effective. Thus, three parameters corresponding to levels of the stimulus of the three kinds of cone cells, in principle describe any human color sensation. Weighting a total light power spectrum by the individual spectral sensitivities of the three kinds of cone cells renders three effective values of stimulus; these three values compose a tristimulus specification of the objective color of the light spectrum. The three parameters denoted "S", "M", and "L", are indicated using a 3-dimensional space denominated the "LMS color space", which is one of many color spaces devised to quantify human color vision.
A color space maps a range of physically produced colors from mixed-light, pigments, etc. to an objective description of color sensations registered in the human eye, typically in terms of tristimulus values, but not usually in the LMS color space defined by the spectral sensitivities of the cone cells. The tristimulus values associated with a color space can be conceptualized as amounts of three primary colors in a tri-chromatic, additive color model. In some color spaces, including the LMS and XYZ spaces, the primary colors used are not real colors in the sense that they cannot be generated in any light spectrum.
The CIE XYZ color space encompasses all color sensations that are visible to a person with average eyesight. That is why CIE XYZ (Tristimulus values) is a device-invariant representation of the color. It serves as a standard reference against which many other color spaces are defined. A set of color-matching functions, like the spectral sensitivity curves of the LMS color space, but not restricted to non-negative sensitivities, associates physically produced light spectra with specific tristimulus values.
Consider two light sources composed of different mixtures of various wavelengths. Such light sources may appear to be the same color; this effect is denominated "metamerism". Such light sources have the same apparent color to an observer when they produce the same tristimulus values, regardless of the spectral power distributions of the sources.
Most wavelengths stimulate two or all three kinds of cone cells because the spectral sensitivity curves of the three kinds overlap. Certain tristimulus values are thus physically impossible, for example, LMS tristimulus values that are non-zero for the M component and zero for both the L and S components. Furthermore, LMS tristimulus values for pure spectral colors would, in any normal trichromatic additive color space, e. g. the RGB color spaces, imply negative values for at least one of the three primaries because the chromaticity would be outside the color triangle defined by the primary colors. To avoid these negative RGB values, and to have one component that describes the perceived brightness, "imaginary" primary colors, and corresponding color-matching functions were formulated. The CIE 1931 color space defines the resulting tristimulus values, in which they are denoted by "X", "Y", and "Z". In XYZ space, all combinations of non-negative coordinates are meaningful, but many, such as the primary locations [1, 0, 0], [0, 1, 0], and [0, 0, 1], correspond to imaginary colors outside the space of possible LMS coordinates; imaginary colors do not correspond to any spectral distribution of wavelengths and therefore have no physical reality.