Perception of Translational Heading From Optical Flow

William H. Warren, Michael W. Morris, Michael Kalish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

317 Scopus citations


Radial patterns of optical flow produced by observer translation could be used to perceive the direction of self-movement during locomotion, and a number of formal analyses of such patterns have recently appeared. However, there is comparatively little empirical research on the perception of heading from optical flow, and what data there are indicate surprisingly poor performance, with heading errors on the order of 5°-10°. We examined heading judgments during translation parallel, perpendicular, and at oblique angles to a random-dot plane, varying observer speed and dot density. Using a discrimination task, we found that heading accuracy improved by an order of magnitude, with 75%-correct thresholds of 0.66° in the highest speed and density condition and 1.2° generally. Performance remained high with displays of 63-10 dots, but it dropped significantly with only 2 dots; there was no consistent speed effect and no effect of angle of approach to the surface. The results are inconsistent with theories based on the local focus of outflow, local motion parallax, multiple fixations, differential motion parallax, and the local maximum of divergence. But they are consistent with Gibson's (1950) original global radial outflow hypothesis for perception of heading during translation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)646-660
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1988
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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