Geon, But Not Forgotten

Our ability for object recognition is pretty amazing. It’s something that we take for granted, even though it is one of the most fundamental ways we gather information about the world around us. Have you ever thought about how we actually accomplish this feat? If not, don’t worry. Irving Biederman, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, has given it some serious consideration.

Professor Biederman has developed the currently prevailing theory on how we identify objects; he calls his theory ‘Recognition By Components’. His work continues to be at the leading edge of visual perception research, an area of study fuelled by advances in the understanding of the brain, by the advent of computers and by the desire to create artificial systems that can mimic our own abilities.

Recognition By Components theory proposes that our brains recognize complex objects as a composition of primitive ones such as cylinders, cones and blocks, whose type and arrangement can be rapidly and accurately identified and compared. These elements also include simple variations on primitive shapes, for example a truncated wedge, or a curving block. Each of these simple shapes is called a Geon, and has four important properties:

  1. View Invariance:
    A Geon is recognizable when viewed in any orientation.
  2. Resistance to Visual Noise:
    A Geon has simple, continuous outlines that can be easily understood even when partly obscured.
  3. Invariance to Illumination Direction, Surface Markings and Texture:
    A Geon has edges and contours that are not easily obscured by variation in lighting or surface markings.
  4. High Distinctiveness:
    Each Geon can be readily distinguished from all others.

On average, a person is able to memorize and recall 30,000 different objects in this way. This ability for recognition extends to the most elemental and abstract representations of complex objects. It is the conduit between our imagination and the physical world around us. Might not an understanding of this invisible lens – through which all our spatial perception is processed – help us to gain a deeper understanding of design, architecture and all of the visual arts?

Images, from left to right:
LEGO Heinkel He 111, Heinkel He 162 ‘Volksjäger’, Messerschmitt Bf 109
From the Flickr gallery ‘Micro Military’, by user Kaptain Kobold, 2011
Images licensed under Creative Commons License 2.0

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