Computer Laboratory

Technical reports

Depth perception in computer graphics

Jonathan David Pfautz

September 2002, 182 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted May 2000 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Trinity College.


With advances in computing and visual display technology, the interface between man and machine has become increasingly complex. The usability of a modern interactive system depends on the design of the visual display. This dissertation aims to improve the design process by examining the relationship between human perception of depth and three-dimensional computer-generated imagery (3D CGI).

Depth is perceived when the human visual system combines various different sources of information about a scene. In Computer Graphics, linear perspective is a common depth cue, and systems utilising binocular disparity cues are of increasing interest. When these cues are inaccurately and inconsistently presented, the effectiveness of a display will be limited. Images generated with computers are sampled, meaning they are discrete in both time and space. This thesis describes the sampling artefacts that occur in 3D CGI and their effects on the perception of depth. Traditionally, sampling artefacts are treated as a Signal Processing problem. The approach here is to evaluate artefacts using Human Factors and Ergonomics methodology; sampling artefacts are assessed via performance on relevant visual tasks.

A series of formal and informal experiments were performed on human subjects to evaluate the effects of spatial and temporal sampling on the presentation of depth in CGI. In static images with perspective information, the relative size of an object can be inconsistently presented across depth. This inconsistency prevented subjects from making accurate relative depth judgements. In moving images, these distortions were most visible when the object was moving slowly, pixel size was large, the object was located close to the line of sight and/or the object was located a large virtual distance from the viewer. When stereo images are presented with perspective cues, the sampling artefacts found in each cue interact. Inconsistencies in both size and disparity can occur as the result of spatial and temporal sampling. As a result, disparity can vary inconsistently across an object. Subjects judged relative depth less accurately when these inconsistencies were present. An experiment demonstrated that stereo cues dominated in conflict situations for static images. In moving imagery, the number of samples in stereo cues is limited. Perspective information dominated the perception of depth for unambiguous (i.e., constant in direction and velocity) movement.

Based on the experimental results, a novel method was developed that ensures the size, shape and disparity of an object are consistent as it moves in depth. This algorithm manipulates the edges of an object (at the expense of positional accuracy) to enforce consistent size, shape and disparity. In a time-to-contact task using only stereo and perspective depth cues, velocity was judged more accurately using this method. A second method manipulated the location and orientation of the viewpoint to maximise the number of samples of perspective and stereo depth in a scene. This algorithm was tested in a simulated air traffic control task. The experiment demonstrated that knowledge about where the viewpoint is located dominates any benefit gained in reducing sampling artefacts.

This dissertation provides valuable information for the visual display designer in the form of task-specific experimental results and computationally inexpensive methods for reducing the effects of sampling.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Pfautz, Jonathan David},
  title = 	 {{Depth perception in computer graphics}},
  year = 	 2002,
  month = 	 sep,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-546}