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Depth Perception

Retinal Disparity And Stereopsis, Development Of Depth Perception, Current Research/future DevelopmentsMonocular cues, Binocular cues, Auditory depth cues

Depth perception is the ability to see the environment in three dimensions and to estimate the spatial distances of objects from ourself and from each other. Depth perception is vital for our survival, being necessary to effectively navigate around and function in the world. Without it we would be unable to tell how far objects are from us, and thus how far we would need to move to reach or avoid them. Moreover, we would not be able to distinguish between, for instance, stepping down a stair from stepping off of a tall building.

Our ability to perceive depth encompasses space perception, or the ability to perceive the differential distances of objects in space. While researchers have discovered much about depth perception, numerous interesting questions remain. For instance, how are we able to perceive the world in three dimensions when the images projected onto the retina are basically two-dimensional and flat? And how much of a role does learning play in depth perception? While depth perception results primarily from our sense of vision, our sense of hearing also plays a role. Two broad classes of cues used to aid visual depth perception have been distinguished-the monocular (requiring only one eye), and the binocular (requiring both eyes working together.)

The following cues require only one eye for their perception. They provide information that helps us estimate spatial distances and to perceive in three dimensions.


Interposition refers to objects appearing to partially block or overlap one another. When an object appears partially blocked by another, the fully visible object is perceived as being nearer, and this generally corresponds to reality.

Shading and lighting

In general, the nearer an object is to a light source, the brighter its surface appears to be, so that with groups of objects, darker objects appear farther away than brighter objects. And in looking at single objects, the farther parts of an object's surface are from the source of light, the more shadowed and less bright they will appear. Varying shading and lighting then provide information about distances of objects from the source of light, and may serve as a cue to the distance of the object from the observer. In addition, some patterns of lighting and shading seem to provide cues about the shapes of objects.

Aerial perspective

Generally, objects having sharp and clear images appear nearer than objects with blurry or unclear images. This occurs because light is scattered or absorbed over long distances by particles in the atmosphere such as water vapor and dust which to a blurring of objects' lines. This is why on clear days, very large objects such as mountains or buildings appear closer than when viewed on hazy days.


This cue, sometimes referred to as "height in the plane" or "relative height," describes how the horizon is seen as vertically higher than the foreground. Thus objects high in the visual field and closer to the horizon line are perceived as being farther away than objects lower in the visual field and farther away from the horizon line. Above the horizon line this relationship is reversed, so that above the horizon, objects that are lower and nearer to the horizon line appear farther away than those up higher and at a greater distance from the horizon line.

Texture gradients

Textures that vary in complexity and density are a characteristic of most object surfaces and they reflect light differentially. Generally, as distance increases, the size of elements making up surface texture appear smaller and the distance between the elements also appears to decrease with distance. Thus if one is looking at a field of grass, the blades of grass will appear smaller and arranged more closely together as their distance increases. Texture gradients also serve as depth and distance cues in groupings of different objects with different textures in the visual field, as when looking at a view of a city. Finally, abrupt changes in texture usually indicate an alteration in the direction of an object's surface and its distance from the observer.

Linear perspective

Linear perspective is a depth cue based on the fact that as objects increase in distance from the observer their images on the retina are transformed so that their size and the space separating them decrease until the farthest objects meet at what is called the vanishing point. It is called the vanishing point because it is the point where objects get so small that they are no longer visible. In addition, physically parallel lines such as those seen in railroad tracks are perceived as coming closer together until they meet or converge at the vanishing point.

Motion parallax

Whenever our eyes move (due to eye movement alone, or head, or body movement) in relation to the spatial environment, objects at varying distances move at different rates relative to their position and distance from us. In other words, objects at different distances relative to the observer are perceived as moving at different speeds. Motion parallax refers to these relatively perceived object motions which we use as cues for the perception of distance and motion as we move through the environment.

As a rule, when the eyes move, objects close to the observer seem to move faster than objects farther away. In addition, more distant objects seem to move smaller distances than do nearer objects. Objects that are very far away, such as a bright star or the moon, seem to move at the exact same rate as the observer and in the same direction.

The amount and direction of movement are relative to the observer's fixation point or where they are focussing. A baby puts to use his/her depth perception by reaching out and touching a toy overhead. Photograph by Gabe Palmer. Stock Market. Reproduced by permission. For instance, if you were travelling on a train and focussing on the middle of a large field you were passing, any objects closer to you than your fixation point would seem to be moving opposite to your direction of movement. In addition, those objects beyond your fixation point would appear to be moving in the same direction as you are moving. Motion parallax cues provide strong and precise distance and depth information to the observer.


Accommodation occurs when curvature of the eye lens changes differentially to form sharp retinal images of near and far objects. To focus on far objects the lens becomes relatively flat and to focus on nearer objects the lens becomes more curved. Changes in the lens shape are controlled by the ciliary muscles and it seems that feedback from alterations in ciliary muscle tension may furnish information about object distance.

Retinal size

As an object's distance from the viewer increases, the size of its image on the retina becomes smaller. And, generally, in the absence of additional visual cues, larger objects are perceived as being closer than are smaller objects.


While not exactly a visual cue for perceiving space or depth as are the previous ones discussed, our familiarity with spatial characteristics of an object such as its size or shape due to experience with the object may contribute to estimates of distance and thus spatial perception. For instance, we know that most cars are taller or higher than children below the age of five, and thus in the absence of other relevant visual cues, a young child seen in front of a car who is taller than the car would be perceived as being closer than the car.

Monocular cues certainly provide a great deal of spatial information, but depth perception also requires binocular functioning of the eyes, that is, both eyes working together in a coordinated fashion. Convergence and retinal disparity are binocular cues to depth perception.


Convergence refers to the eyes' disposition to rotate inward toward each other in a coordinated manner in order to focus effectively on nearby objects. With objects that are farther away, the eyes must move outward toward one's temples. For objects further than approximately 20 ft (6 m) away no more changes in convergence occur and the eyes are essentially parallel with each other. It seems that feedback from changes in muscular tension required to cause convergence eye movements may provide information about depth or distance.

Auditory depth cues are used by everyone but are especially important for the blind. These include the relative loudness of familiar sounds, the amount of reverberation of sounds as in echoes, and certain characteristics of sounds unique to their frequency. For instance, higher frequency sounds are more easily absorbed by the atmosphere.

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