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New Research Could Help Humans See What Nature Hides

The discovery of highly systematic laws for perception in natural scenes — made possible by constrained statistical sampling — is a potential game changer,” said the paper’s lead author Wilson Geisler, a UT Austin professor of psychology and director of the Center for Perceptual Systems. “It demonstrates how to study complex real-world perception with the same level of rigor that was previously achieved only with simple synthetic stimuli.”

In order for people to pick out an object against a background, the object must differ from the background by a “just noticeable difference,” a threshold quantified by the minimum difference a person can detect the majority of the time. Even as the properties of both the object and the background vary, the threshold remains in constant proportion to the product of the background properties — a generalized version of Weber’s law.

“The ability of these background properties to mask objects is well known for simple laboratory stimuli,” Geisler said. “However, it was not known how these properties combine to mask objects in natural scenes.”

The researchers considered the effects of stimulus uncertainty. Under real-world conditions, the properties of the object and of the background against which the object appears will randomly vary from one occasion to the next, creating a stimulus uncertainty that can also affect accuracy in detecting the object.

Their findings showed that the detrimental effects of this uncertainty can be minimized by estimating the luminance, contrast and similarity at the object’s possible locations, and then dividing the neural responses at each of these locations by the product of these estimates. The researchers found strong evidence that these computations are done automatically in the human visual system.

Knowing this may lead to improved radiology technology to help radiologists identify abnormalities in the human body; or better security imaging at airports to detect suspicious items in luggage; or enhanced camouflage design to disguise soldiers in war zones, Geisler said.

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