Imagine you are working on a computer, cutting a steak, painting a picture, or soldering a wire. Such activities take place in a very particular kind of environment: spaces within a few feet of the body, which contain multiple objects and afford hand-based actions. How are such spaces represented in the brain and mind? Current theories of visual processing can account for how we perceive objects (3-D spatially bounded entities) and scenes (navigable-scale indoor or outdoor spaces), but it is not clear how these theories apply to the reachable-scale spaces in which we perform most of our every-day tasks.

In my work, I examine how the visual system analyzes and represents reachable environments. I use the term “reachspaces” to refer to such environments, and operationalize them as near-scale spaces, within 3-4 feet of the body, which consist of collections of objects or other interactable units, and which support task-oriented behavior.

 

Here are some questions I am currently pursuing, using a combination of functional neuroimaging, behavioral psychophysics, and machine vision models.

 

How are reachable environments represented in the brain?

In the brain, objects and scenes are processed in distinct networks. Scene-selective regions represent the geometric layout of a space, its navigational affordances, and its relationship to the larger environment (Epstein & Baker, 2019). Object-selective regions represent the shape objects, in a way in a manner that is robust to confounding low-level contours,  and minor changes in size or position (Grill-Spector, Kourtzi, & Kanwisher, 2001). How do each of these pathways contribute to the processing of reachable environments? And are there regions outside of these networks, with different kinds of representations, which contribute to understanding reachable environments in particular?

 

Related work: Josephs, E.L. & Konkle, T. (2020). Large-scale dissociations between views of objects, scenes, and reachable-scale environments in visual cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(47)  29354-29362 author's copy.

 

What visual features characterize reachable environments?

Things that belong to the same category tend to look alike. For scenes, member of a category (such as “forest” or “field”) share global features such as openness, mean depth and navigability with other member of the category (Greene & Oliva, 2009). Do reachable environments have characteristic features that set them apart from scenes? If so, what are those primitives like? What is the “alphabet” of visual features that can be combined to make a reachspace, and how does it differ from that of scenes?

Related work: Josephs, E.L. & Konkle, T. (2019). Perceptual dissociations among views of objects, scenes, and reachable spaces. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. preprint

 

What dimensions describe human judgments of reachable environments?

Decades of work have established the ways that objects can differ from each other: they can be animate or inanimate, big or small, manipulable or not, natural or manmade. So far, we don’t have such an understanding of reachable environments. What are the dimensions that distinguish one reachable environment  from another? How are these dimensions encoded in neural responses to reachspaces? How do they relate to visual or conceptual features of the environment?

 

Related work: Josephs, E.L. & Konkle, T. (2021, May). Emergent dimensions underlying human perception of the reachable world. Poster presented at the 21th annual meeting of the Vision Science Society. [pdf]

What are the kinds of reachable environments of the world?

If you were asked to list all of the reachspaces that people encounter, what spaces would you name? To date, there has not been any list, census, or survey that collects together the different kinds of reachable environments humans encounter. Recently, I have headed an effort to put together such a census, and collect example images from each category. The outcome of this work is the Reachspace Database, a collection of over 350 reachspaces categories. See the progress at reachspacedatabase.com.