Perceiving path from optic flow

Li LI*, Joseph C. K. CHENG

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


We examined how people perceive their path of traveling from optic flow. Observers viewed displays simulating their traveling on a circular path over a textured ground, a random-dot ground, or a dynamic random-dot ground display in which dots were periodically redrawn to remove extended dot motion trajectories (flow lines) in the flow field. Five viewing conditions were tested in which the simulated observer gaze direction was pointed to (1) a target on the path at 30° away from the initial heading, (2) a target at 15° outside of the path, (3) a target at 15° inside of the path, (4) along the instantaneous heading, or (5) along the Z-axis of the simulated environment. Path performance was similar for all three display conditions, indicating that observers did not rely on flow lines to perceive path from optic flow. Furthermore, contrary to the idea that looking where you want to go provides accurate path perception, path perception was accurate only when the simulated observer gaze direction pointed in the instantaneous heading direction. In contrast, heading perception was accurate and not affected by path curvature regardless of the simulated gaze direction. The results suggest that heading perception is more robust than path perception.

Original languageEnglish
Article number22
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This study was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (HKU 7478/08H) to L. Li. We thank two anonymous reviewers and Diederick Niehorster for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this article and Lee Stone for helpful discussion.


  • optic flow
  • heading perception
  • path perception
  • translation and rotation
  • eye movement


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