Why the visual recognition system might encode the effects of illumination

Michael J. Tarr, Daniel Kersten, Heinrich H. Bülthoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Citations (Scopus)


A key problem in recognition is that the image of an object depends on the lighting conditions. We investigated whether recognition is sensitive to illumination using 3-D objects that were lit from either the left or right, varying both the shading and the cast shadows. In experiments 1 and 2 participants judged whether two sequentially presented objects were the same regardless of illumination. Experiment 1 used six objects that were easily discriminated and that were rendered with cast shadows. While no cost was found in sensitivity, there was a response time cost over a change in lighting direction. Experiment 2 included six additional objects that were similar to the original six objects making recognition more difficult. The objects were rendered with cast shadows, no shadows, and as a control, white shadows. With normal shadows a change in lighting direction produced costs in both sensitivity and response times. With white shadows there was a much larger cost in sensitivity and a comparable cost in response times. Without cast shadows there was no cost in either measure, but the overall performance was poorer. Experiment 3 used a naming task in which names were assigned to six objects rendered with cast shadows. Participants practised identifying the objects in two viewpoints lit from a single lighting direction. Viewpoint and illumination invariance were then tested over new viewpoints and illuminations. Costs in both sensitivity and response time were found for naming the familiar objects in unfamiliar lighting directions regardless of whether the viewpoint was familiar or unfamiliar. Together these results suggest that illumination effects such as shadow edges: (1) affect visual memory; (2) serve the function of making unambigous the three-dimensional shape; and (3) are modeled with respect to object shape, rather than simply encoded in lens of their effects in the image.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2259-2275
Number of pages17
JournalVision Research
Issue number15-16
Publication statusPublished - 1998 Aug


  • 3-D objects
  • Illumination
  • Visual recognition system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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