Navigating the world

Setting Sights

Carla DeMarco

The way we navigate the world on a daily basis and the visual stimuli we are continually processing to do so might not always be top of mind because it may seem like an effortless exercise, but this is exactly the focus for the newly established Applied Perception & Psychophysics Laboratory (APPLY) at UTM.

And it’s what drives the interes

Professor Benjamin Wolfe
t of co-directors of the APPLY lab, Anna Kosovicheva and Benjamin Wolfe, both assistant professors in the department of psychology, who study, among other things, visual perception and driving. They are long-time collaborators, both having completed their PhDs in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley in the lab of Dr. David Whitney, but new to UTM, having joined the faculty in 2021.

“Our experience of the world is not just the light that comes into our eyes, goes into the retina, and winds up perfectly in the brain - that's not how vision works,” says Wolfe on the latest episode of VIEW to the U podcast.

“It is really a cognitive process of perception, and so I’m interested in the question of how do we get what we need from the world, which is enormously complex, to be able to move around and do everything we need to do in daily life.”

Wolfe says over the past few years his research has primarily focused on the visual perception we take in while driving or in moving about in the world, as well as studies on reading and making things more readable and how to better process text.

Professor Anna Kosovicheva
Kosovicheva adds that their lab studies the mechanisms of how we take in visual and spatial information.

She gives the example of “something as basic as catching a baseball that’s flying through the air,” as well as walking around outside.

“We also focus on health-relevant applications in our lab,” says Kosovicheva.

“As an example, we actually use eye tracking to measure how the eyes are misaligned in certain conditions in order to develop training tools to get the eyes to work together a bit better in everyday scenarios.”

Regular lab activity has not yet resumed for their APPLY lab due to pandemic-related restrictions, and eye tracking is one of the studies that has been sidelined because it needs to be conducted in the lab. However, they are able to continue some of their work, enlisting participants to try out different scenarios with dashboard-camera videos that they are able to obtain freely from the internet and then process them (omitting distractions like audio, for example) to make them usable in their particular studies.

“At this point, probably millions of dash-cam videos from all over the world with every sort of weird situation imaginable have been uploaded,” says Wolfe, who cites a couple examples including people randomly walking into a street to start dancing.

“The applications for this work include something like, imagine you’ve got a self-driving car but then there’s a complication and the driver needs to take over. I am really interested in questions like, ‘alright, you have to look at the scene and understand what is going on now.’”

Prior to joining the faculty at UTM, Kosovicheva was in a postdoctoral position at Northeastern University in Boston, and Wolfe was a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although they have been coming to the UTM campus throughout the past year since starting their appointments in January 2021, they are really most keen to meet more faculty and staff on campus, and to connect with their students without a screen in between.

“I have really enjoyed being able to teach and mentor students virtually, and the impression I’ve gotten so far is that UTM students are a curious bunch and really enthusiastic about learning,” says Kosovicheva.

“This makes me even more excited to meet them and be able to work with them – as well as with my UTM colleagues – in person. It’s something I am really looking forward to, as well as starting up our physical lab and using some of the eye-tracking studies we have designed.”

To hear more from Professor Kosovicheva and Wolfe, tune into the latest episode of VIEW to the U for this first episode of season seven.

Also, please see the APPLY Lab’s website for more information on their research.