The central issue in the perception of the world is how the perceptual system comes into contact with that world. In vision, the assumption for centuries has been that the experienced world must be recovered somehow from the 2D image of the world projected onto the retina by the lens of the eye. Scientists therefore hunted for patterns on the retina that preserved critical structure from the world by copying some part of that critical structure.
James J Gibson was, for a long time, no exception to this hunt. His early empirical work (grounded in the theory he laid out in The Perception of the Visual World; Gibson, 1950) created and manipulated retinal images that, for example, contained gradients of optical texture that matched gradients of physical texture created as surfaces receded in depth, or changed their shape or orientation relative to a point of observation. But time and again, Gibson found that perceptual experience was not any straight-forward function of retinal stimulation (i.e. sensations). People did not ‘see’ what was on the retina (Reed, 1988). The most powerful demonstration of this fact is Gibson’s analysis of dynamic occlusion (Gibson, Kaplan, Reynolds & Wheeler, 1969; Kaplan, 1969) to which we will return below.
Gibson’s later career was defined by the search for an explanation of how perception could be possible if it wasn’t based on sensations and retinal images. Gibson’s solution was his theory of the ecological information available for visual perception published in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Gibson, 1979).
What follows is a description of ecological information with reference to some of Gibson’s work and the extensive research literature that has taken place since Gibson’s death in 1979. The focus will be on the information in light for vision, because that has been the focus of the research. However, the principles hold for all the various energy media our perceptual systems interact with, and we will review this briefer evidence as well.
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