We judge distance from the ground up.
Our brains use angular measurements to decide how far away objects are.
Even if trigonometry wasn’t your strong suit in school, your brain uses it constantly. You judge distance by measuring the angle between the ground and your line of sight to an object, a new study shows. The finding could improve the design of robots and artificial vision systems1.
Volunteers who looked through prisms that increased this angle thought objects were closer than they really were, missing them when throwing beanbags or trying to walk to them blindfolded.
The long view
The idea that humans use the angle with the ground to measure distance is an old one. Ancient Chinese artists drew distant objects higher in the field of view, unlike European artists who generally relied on perspective, in which lines meet at infinity. The eleventh-century Arabic scholar Alhazen, whom some credit with having invented the scientific method, also hypothesized that humans use angles with the ground to judge distances.
Alhazen’s idea faded from attention over the years, and was resurrected only in the middle of the twentieth century, when psychologist James Gibson independently reached the same conclusion while helping to train pilots during World War II. Since then, however, the theory has lacked direct evidence.
For this reason, "this new study is quite important work," says Sedgwick. Ooi and colleagues have, he believes, produced "convincing evidence supporting the ground theory".
Understanding how humans process vision could help engineers to design more realistic virtual-reality systems and build robots that can navigate their environment better, Ooi suggests. It could even help people suffering from brain damage that interferes with their distance estimation, she says. "Research to elucidate space vision should help us predict the problems encountered by brain-injured patients, and to fix their problems through rehabilitation or compensatory robotic devices."
ERICA KLARREICH | © Nature News Service
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