1992 volume 21(4) pages 481 – 496

Cite as:
Willats J, 1992, "Seeing lumps, sticks, and slabs in silhouettes" Perception 21(4) 481 – 496

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Seeing lumps, sticks, and slabs in silhouettes

John Willats

Received 3 May 1990, in revised form 9 October 1991

Abstract. Marr has suggested that we see three-dimensional (3-D) shapes in silhouettes because we make the implicit assumption that the viewed shapes are generalized cones. One difficulty with this suggestion is that it cannot deal with silhouettes of irregular 3-D shapes like clouds and trees; another is that it only applies to generalized cones with a relatively high length: width ratio. An alternative explanation, suggested by evidence from cross-cultural studies of language, from children's early speech, and from children's early drawings, is that the scene primitives actually used by humans are not generalized cones but 'lumps', 'sticks', and 'slabs', that is, primitives whose only shape properties are their relative extensions in 3-D space. In this paper it is proposed that the implicit assumption we make in interpreting silhouettes is that the extendedness of the silhouette reflects the extendedness of the viewed shape, so that a round region is seen as a lump and a long region is seen as a stick; and that such views seem "natural" because they are the views most likely to be encountered in normal environments. This account is more general than that of Marr because it explains how we interpret silhouettes of all kinds of 3-D shapes, even very irregular ones. Unlike Marr's account, it also deals with flat shapes like slabs and discs, and shows why it is difficult to see these shapes in silhouettes.

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