A heads-up about head-up displays

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Tony Borroz at Wired wrote a description of a new GM design that effectively turns the windshield of your car into a monitor. When combined with night vision cameras and various object recognition algorithms, this system could effectively highlight the edges of the road at night or in foggy conditions.

GM image of augmented reality windshield display

GM augmented windshield

This form of augmented reality can be really helpful, but it can also introduce problems. Most people intuitively understand that they can’t look away from where they’re driving for more than a couple seconds without putting themselves at risk. You can glance down at your radio or your speedometer, but you need to look back at the road quickly. That intuition is a good one, and it motivates the idea that using a head-up display will help. With a head-up display, you could project the information onto your windshield so that you don’t have to look away from where you’re going to determine your speed, change your radio station, etc.

GM’s approach will make it easier for drivers to stay on the road under less-than-ideal conditions, and that’s a great thing. Research on head-up displays in flight simulators shows that providing a virtual indication of where pilots go—a simulated “highway in the sky”—allows for more precise navigation. It effectively augments reality in a way that makes guidance more accurate.

The problem, though, is that enhancing your ability to keep your eyes facing forward and to stay on the road takes attention away from another aspect of driving (or flying): your ability to detect unexpected events (Wickens & Alexander, 2009). Looking isn’t the same as seeing, and if your attention is focused on your guidance displays, it’s not focused on the outside world.

In a remarkable demonstration of just how much you can miss, NASA researcher Richard Haines had commercial airline pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience use a high-quality flight simulator with a head-up display. During one sequence, they came in for a landing under somewhat foggy conditions. They broke through the cloud ceiling and spotted the runway, landing the plane as they usually would. Two of them never saw the other plane that was sitting on their runway and landed right through it. The jet on the runway filled much of their cockpit display.

Image from Haines flight simulator study

A plane on a simulated runway

The pilots suffered from inattentional blindness—unexpected events don’t grab attention, even if you’re looking right at them. And, inattentional blindness is counter-intuitive. Most people assume that looking guarantees seeing. GM’s approach to augmenting reality will help you stay on the road, but don’t assume that enhancing your ability to stay on the road will also help you detect unexpected objects. If you devote all of your attention to the augmented roadway navigation aids, your “situation awareness” is reduced. That’s narrowing of attention helps explain how a driver could “blindly” follow the friendly, but flawed directions of their GPS onto a pedestrian walkway and into a cherry tree.

image of truck in cherry tree

from www.engadget.com


Wickens C.D., & Alexander, A. L. (2009). Attentional tunneling and task management in synthetic vision displays International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 19, 182-199

Haines, R. F. (1989). A breakdown in simultaneous information processing In G. Obrecht & L. W. Stark (Eds.), Presbyopia Research: From Molecular Biology to Visual Adaptation. New York: Plenum Press.

Alfred's day off

Alfred the Gorilla

Alfred the Gorilla from the Bristol City Museum

Here’s a great story. One of my brethren, a gorilla named Alfred, managed to escape from the Bristol City Museum more than 50 years ago and got to spend a few days hanging out with college students. Apparently he did a bit too much partying and eventually was admitted to the university’s health center. His days of reveling stayed secret for 50 years—as all gorillas know, what happens in Bristol stays in Bristol. His escapade was only revealed after his college student buddies passed away. Makes me wonder how many other times he “escaped” without being noticed by the museum curators. Was he invisible or something?!

When simple cubes turn into a complex project

I will readily admit to being inordinately excited by modern furniture. My wife Michelle and I were influenced to buy our house by the sellers’ decision to include in the price several wonderful pieces, some of which I had been coveting for years. And I have always had fond memories of some simple but well-built, cube-shaped wooden boxes from my childhood home.

Fortunately—at least it seemed fortunate at the time—when our son was born my parents still had the boxes lying around in their basement, and they eagerly donated them to their only grandchild’s room. After two six-hour round-trips to my parents’ house, I got all six of the cubes home. The only problem was that they were unfinished, which wasn’t the look we were going for. “It should take about an hour to paint these white,” said Michelle one summer morning. We made a trip to Home Depot to get spray paint, arranged the cubes on newspaper in the driveway, and went at it. But something wasn’t working. The spray paint was mostly blowing away in the breeze, and there wasn’t enough to coat all the surfaces.

After lunch we went back to Home Depot for a can of paint, paintbrushes (large and small), paint trays, rollers, and a dropcloth. Now the paint actually got onto the cubes and stayed there, but pouring out the paint, getting it coated on the rollers, painting each side, turning the cubes, using the brushes to paint all the inside corner areas, making sure all the edges were coated, and so on wound up taking the rest of the afternoon. The cubes also had to be brought inside to finish drying and the leftover supplies had to be cleaned or discarded. What started out as a “one hour” project took the two of us most of a day, not to mention over $100 in supplies, plus the gasoline needed for two Home Depot runs. (To be fair, we won’t count the time and fuel used to pick up the cubes in the first place, since I was already visiting his parents for other reasons.)

The cubes that it took me and my wife pretty much an entire day to paint

The cubes that it took me and my wife pretty much an entire day to paint

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the environmental correctness of reusing perfectly good wood furniture instead of throwing it out, the result of this project was that, counting the value of our time, two highly-educated professionals spent at least three times more on this simple do-it-yourself exercise then it would have cost to buy a brand-new set of pre-painted white storage cubes. More important, for our purposes, is the fact that we didn’t realize in advance what we were getting into. Even though Dan and I were already working on The Invisible Gorilla at the time, I mistakenly believed that I understood the task that lay ahead much better than I actually did. If I had only been able to read, and take to heart, the message of Chapter 4—that we consistently mis-estimate what we know about how things work, how much projects will cost, and how long they will take—I might not have spent a day in DIY hell.

Postscript: The cubes turned out well in the end. And they did give us a blog post.

x-ray glasses

As a kid, I loved reading Boy’s Life Magazine, particularly the advertisements at the back of the magazine that promised amazing new abilities. My favorite ad, other than the promise of Sea Monkeys of course, was the advertisement for x-ray glasses. It looked something like this:

advertisement for x-ray glasses

I knew, at some level, that these couldn’t work. But they still appealed — imagine the possibilities if you could just put on a pair of glasses and radically change what you can see. Just imagine that you could put on the glasses and see right through walls or clothes. This sort of magical transformation taps into the belief we all have in untapped potential. Who hasn’t fantasized about having Spiderman-like powers or being able to teleport instantly home from work (or maybe I just have a particularly odd fantasy life…). A more common fantasy might be the belief that each of us has some hidden talent waiting to be discovered. Maybe if you picked up a guitar, you could become a virtuoso. Maybe if you took up poker, you could win the World Series of Poker in Vegas. Maybe that talent is lurking just below the surface, waiting to be released. Maybe we’re all just ordinary people with extraordinary abilities waiting to be discovered (that’s the tag-line for the hit show Heroes, by the way — the theme of untapped potential is central to most fantasy writing).

At a more mundane level, though, the idea that we have untapped abilities that we can release easily plays a pervasive role in how we think about cognitive change. And, in some cases, can fuel billion-dollar industries. The idea that listening to Mozart might increase intelligence or that playing videogames can radically change your everyday memory have contributed to a boon in sales of Mozart for babies and brain training games, none of which can live up to their promise of dramatically improved brain power. We can gain new skills, and we do have an exceptional potential for change, but cognitive change takes work and isn’t released by flipping a switch.

The “brain porn” area of the brain

Quinn Norton created this great image spoofing the tendency to treat experimental results as more scientific when they are accompanied by images of the brain:

Image by Quinn Norton showing an area of the brain that shuts off when it sees brain images.

The figure suggests that there is area of the brain that shuts off when interpreting neuroscience findings. A nice study by Weisberg and colleagues found that adding a line of meaningless “neurobabble” (the neuroscience equivalent of “psychobabble”)  to the explanation of a scientific result led people to find that explanation more compelling. Just mentioning brain areas led people to think the explanation was better, even though the neurobabble added nothing of logical value to the explanation. The effect seems even stronger when pretty pictures of brains (we call these “brain porn”) are involved. In Chapter 4 of The Invisible Gorilla we argue that neurobabble and brain porn succeed because they play on the illusion of knowledge—our proclivity to think that we understand more about a topic than we really do.

“Neurobabble” study: Weisberg, D., Keil, F., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. & Gray, J. R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 470–477.

“Brain porn” study: McCabe, D.P., & Castel, A.D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107, 343–352.

A big chest thump to Vaughan who wrote about this image at the Mind Hacks blog

Cracking up about patterns and cause

I just received an email from a contractor in Austria who described a legal problem that many contractors face. Apparently, demolition crews are sued regularly by homeowners for damage to nearby homes. After a blast that causes vibration in a house, homeowners search their house and discover big cracks. They then blame the cracks on the nearby blasts and the vibrations they cause. According to the contractor, these newly discovered cracks likely were there all along; most houses develop cracks as they age and settle. The key is that people didn’t notice the cracks until they started looking for them.

In some ways, this phenomenon is the opposite of change blindness (the failure to notice large changes that we discuss in Chapter 2 of the book)—in essence, people are blind to the lack of change. They see change where none actually existed because they assume they would have noticed a big crack had it been there all along. If the crack is distinctive after they know to look for it, they assume that they would have noticed it even if they weren’t looking for it. But the cracks don’t draw attention automatically, and you won’t spot them until you search for them. Once you do look for cracks, you likely will see them everywhere. The same principle explains why, after being dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend, every song on the radio is about relationships. It’s unlikely that radio stations are attuned to your romantic status—they were playing a similar rotation of songs before and after your breakup, but you’re now focusing attention on relationships, so you notice.

The problem is that we intuitively believe that distinctive objects, events, and features—like a crack in the wall—automatically draw attention, when in reality, it takes effort to find them. Once we know about them, they’re obvious. Before we know about them, they’re invisible. Our intuitions about how attention and the mind work lead us to the wrong conclusion: I couldn’t have missed something so obvious, so it must be new. In the case of vibration, homeowners mistakenly attribute the newly detected cracks to the most obvious, recent, external event (vibration from a blast). Mistaken intuitions about attention and perception prevent the homeowners from spotting the real reason they hadn’t noticed cracks before: we often don’t see what we’re not looking for.

Behind the scenes of the “gorilla experiment”

The title of The Invisible Gorilla refers to an experiment that Dan and I conducted at Harvard in the late 1990s. In the first part of Chapter 1 (which you should be able to read soon when we post an excerpt on our site), we mention that the idea arose originally as an exercise for a course that Dan was teaching and for which I was the teaching fellow (Harvard’s special name for “teaching assistant”). The course was a “laboratory methods” course in which students learned how to conduct experiments in cognitive psychology. Over the semester, each student worked on his or her own individual project, but Dan wanted to have at least one group project that everyone could be involved in. So most of the people passing basketballs as well as the gorilla walking through the action were students who were in the course at the time.

The experiment was inspired by research done by Ulric Neisser in the 1970s. Neisser had a woman carrying an umbrella walk across a basketball court. We filmed several different versions of the video originally, using both an umbrella woman and a gorilla. Those involving the gorilla had it just walk through the action without stopping in the middle, which took about five seconds. The video that has become popular was actually an afterthought. We had finished what we planned to do for our experiment, but we had more time (and tape, and students) available, so we tried a few other strange things, like having players exit and re-enter the action, even by calling the elevator and getting in. For fun, we tried a version in which the gorilla stops in the middle of the action, turns toward the camera, and thumps its chest before exiting. We weren’t even sure whether we could pull it off without the ball or the players hitting into the gorilla, but it worked on the first take.

Once we ran the main experiment (with the non-thumping gorilla videos), we tried the “thump” video to see if people would still miss the gorilla even with it on screen for nine seconds, almost twice as long as the original five seconds. To our own surprise, it worked just as well, and produced the even more dramatic demonstration of inattentional blindness.

The original report of our findings is in the article “Gorillas in Our Midst,” published in the journal Perception in 1999.

You can view the video itself on Dan’s lab website.

Introducing Christopher Chabris

photo of Chris

Photo by Steve Jacobs

I’m Christopher Chabris, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. I’ll be blogging regularly here from now on — hopefully for a long time to come. I’ll be talking about our book (which will be published on May 18, 2010), but also about other topics related to the book, about psychology and neuroscience, probably a little bit of chess and poker, and other things I feel like mentioning. You can read about the authors to learn more about me. I look forward to your comments! Thanks for reading.

Introducing Daniel Simons

Photo of Daniel Simons

Photo by Joanna Strauss

Hi. I’m Daniel Simons, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla. I will be blogging here regularly, both about the book and a wide range of other topics in science, psychology, and current events. You can read about the authors to learn more about me. I’m looking forward to reading your comments, and I hope you enjoy reading my posts.

Introducing The Invisible Gorilla

The Invisible Gorilla

Photo by Kyle Mathewson and Daniel Simons

Hi. I’m The Invisible Gorilla, and I will be a regular blogger here. I like to find recent news stories, media coverage, books, and writing in which hairless primates fall prey to everyday illusions. The worse the mistake, the more bananas I give them. Enjoy!