What the 'Moonwalk' illusion reveals about the perception of relative depth from motion
When one visual object moves behind another, the object farther from the viewer is progressively occluded and/or disoccluded by the nearer object. For nearly half a century, this dynamic occlusion cue has been thought to be sufficient by itself for determining the relative depth of the two objects. This view is consistent with the self-evident geometric fact that the surface undergoing dynamic occlusion is always farther from the viewer than the occluding surface. Here we use a contextual manipulation of a previously known motion illusion, which we refer to as the ‘Moonwalk’ illusion, to demonstrate that the visual system cannot determine relative depth from dynamic occlusion alone. Indeed, in the Moonwalk illusion, human observers perceive a relative depth contrary to the dynamic occlusion cue. However, the perception of the expected relative depth is restored by contextual manipulations unrelated to dynamic occlusion. On the other hand, we show that an Ideal Observer can determine using dynamic occlusion alone in the same Moonwalk stimuli, indicating that the dynamic occlusion cue is, in principle, sufficient for determining relative depth. Our results indicate that in order to correctly perceive relative depth from dynamic occlusion, the human brain, unlike the Ideal Observer, needs additional segmentation information that delineate the occluder from the occluded object. Thus, neural mechanisms of object segmentation must, in addition to motion mechanisms that extract information about relative depth, play a crucial role in the perception of relative depth from motion.
Kromrey, S.; Bart, E.; Hegde, J. What the ‘Moonwalk’ illusion reveals about the perception of relative depth from motion. PLoS ONE. 2011; 6 (6): e20951.