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

75 Scopus citations


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 (US)
Pages (from-to)2259-2275
Number of pages17
JournalVision Research
Issue number15-16
StatePublished - Aug 1998

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, contract number F49620-91-J-0169, and a Max-Planck Institute visitor's grant to MJT, and grants from NATO and the National Science Foundation, contract number SBR-9631682, to DK. We thank Alan Yuille for his thoughtful comments and discussions on many of the ideas in this paper, Scott Klemmer, James Rosoff, Alexa Rupertsberg, Jay Servidea, Amy Taxin, and KaRin Turner for their assistance in running the experiments and Scott Yu for creating the stimuli.


  • 3-D objects
  • Illumination
  • Visual recognition system


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