Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Visual search and eye movements: Studies of perceptual span

Helena Ojanpää

Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Psychology and Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

In visual search one tries to find the currently relevant item among other, irrelevant items. In the present study, visual search performance for complex objects (characters, faces, computer icons and words) was investigated, and the contribution of different stimulus properties, such as luminance contrast between characters and background, set size, stimulus size, colour contrast, spatial frequency, and stimulus layout were investigated. Subjects were required to search for a target object among distracter objects in two-dimensional stimulus arrays. The outcome measure was threshold search time, that is, the presentation duration of the stimulus array required by the subject to find the target with a certain probability. It reflects the time used for visual processing separated from the time used for decision making and manual reactions. The duration of stimulus presentation was controlled by an adaptive staircase method. The number and duration of eye fixations, saccade amplitude, and perceptual span, i.e., the number of items that can be processed during a single fixation, were measured.

It was found that search performance was correlated with the number of fixations needed to find the target. Search time and the number of fixations increased with increasing stimulus set size. On the other hand, several complex objects could be processed during a single fixation, i.e., within the perceptual span. Search time and the number of fixations depended on object type as well as luminance contrast. The size of the perceptual span was smaller for more complex objects, and decreased with decreasing luminance contrast within object type, especially for very low contrasts. In addition, the size and shape of perceptual span explained the changes in search performance for different stimulus layouts in word search. Perceptual span was scale invariant for a 16-fold range of stimulus sizes, i.e., the number of items processed during a single fixation was independent of retinal stimulus size or viewing distance.

It is suggested that saccadic visual search consists of both serial (eye movements) and parallel (processing within perceptual span) components, and that the size of the perceptual span may explain the effectiveness of saccadic search in different stimulus conditions. Further, low-level visual factors, such as the anatomical structure of the retina, peripheral stimulus visibility and resolution requirements for the identification of different object types are proposed to constrain the size of the perceptual span, and thus, limit visual search performance.

Similar methods were used in a clinical study to characterise the visual search performance and eye movements of neurological patients with chronic solvent-induced encephalopathy (CSE). In addition, the data about the effects of different stimulus properties on visual search in normal subjects were presented as simple practical guidelines, so that the limits of human visual perception could be taken into account in the design of user interfaces.

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Last updated 16.10.2006

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