Oct. 26, 1998 MOSCOW, Idaho - University of Idaho psychologist Brian Dyre is helping the U.S. Air Force fine tune virtual displays, those futuristic glimmers of light that project vital information on windshields for pilots.
The heads-up displays have already proven their usefulness in military aircraft. Some believe 21st Century aircraft cockpits may forego windows and rely on such virtual displays entirely.
The practical applications of virtual displays are beginning to reach beyond the military to the nation's highways.
General Motors executives say a night-vision system that projects an image on the windshield will be offered on 2000 model year Cadillac DeVilles. The Cadillac display will use an infrared sensor to "see" the road ahead three to five times farther than the headlights can reach.
Getting the most from the new displays can be trickier than they look, Dyre said. "If they are not implemented well, they can be counter productive and distracting."
The image must be presented to the pilot or driver so it appears far off, which allows the viewer to stay focused on distant objects.
Dyre, an assistant psychology professor, uses a sophisticated flight simulator to track how subjects in his Moscow-based Idaho Visual Performance Laboratory perceive visual information.
The twin, 53-inch television screens resemble the ultimate home theater. It's much more, of course. The flight simulator relies on two video channels to present a three-dimensional, wide-field view, Dyre said.
His viewers are watched as well. A mirror-like visor records where the test subject looks and tracks both how often the eyes blink and the pupil diameter as indicators of mental workload.
"We're evaluating the potential of presenting information to peripheral vision," Dyre said. "We might be able to reduce visual clutter."
The Air Force Office of Scientific Research has given Dyre $474,000 to buy the equipment and conduct the study. The three-year study will employ four to six undergraduate and graduate students.
Dyre wants to learn more about how peripheral vision might be used to perceive speed and direction. Peripheral displays are unlikely to use complicated dials or bar graphs.
"We're trying to tap into the automatic perceptual processes we all use. The idea is to identify what these natural orienting mechanisms are and design displays to take advantage of them," he said.
The study will take Dyre back to the foundations of psychology. Psychophysics, probing how the mind responds to physical factors, is a science dating to the mid-1800s.
"We attempt to define the relationships between the physical world and our experience of it," he said.
Most people switch their modes of perception without a thought. They pay attention to the bumper of the car ahead when traffic is heavy or glance around casually when the road is clear.
Like an automatic transmission, the mechanism responsible for the mind's shifts is anything but simple.
"The more we examine these perceptual systems the more complicated they appear. We can shift from an automatic mode to a sharply focused mode instantly," Dyre said. "In the lab, we're trying to differentiate between these two different perceptual modes so we can design displays appropriately."
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