You can’t believe your eyes – at York’s Centre for Vision Research

Dapper "Hans" is already a bit of an anomaly. What with his coiffed blond hair, chiselled chin and starched shirt, the dead-eyed mannequin sitting down to breakfast in a humble country kitchen – with rooster-patterned wallpaper no less – is a little discomfiting to begin with. But when the big wooden chair you’re strapped into begins to turn you upside down, the scene gets downright cuckoo, began a feature in the Toronto Star Aug. 20 on York’s Centre for Vision Research. "Actually, the chair isn’t moving at all," explains Richard Dyde, a postdoctoral fellow at the centre. "The room is doing the moving."

How our eyes interact with our brains – and how that interplay dictates our sense of the world around us – is the York centre’s visionary subject matter. "Most people when they think vision, they immediately think eye, but when we say vision, we’re mainly thinking how the brain processes it," says Doug Crawford, Canada Research Chair in Visuomotor Neuroscience at York. "And we are one of the best places in the world at doing this."

Yet the centre, which has some 26 faculty members, remains out of sight and out of mind for much of the York community. "A lot of people here (at the school) don’t realize that this is Canada’s largest vision research centre," Crawford says.

Currently spread out over numerous locations across York’s Keele campus, the centre – which boasts about 100 post-doctoral and graduate students – will be consolidated in the school’s former arena in the coming months.

The centre has the country’s only six-sided – including a glass floor – "immersive" virtual reality display room. Designed and built by the school’s Vision, Graphics & Robotics Laboratory, the IVY (Immersive Visual environment at York) is an electronic rush, with six $100,000 computers projecting three-dimensional images across the walls, floor and ceiling. Entering IVY, currently located in the school’s Computer Science Building, is akin to stepping into a high-definition video game. The 3D scenes that flash all around you – completely synchronized on each 2-by-2-metre surface – bring to mind the holodeck on "Star Trek". And again, though you’re standing still, the moving images give a distinct sense that you’re in motion, careening down castle passageways and turning on the brink of an abyss.

"Most of the experiments we do in here look at the perception of self-orientation, how you know you’ve moved or how you know which way is up," says Michael Jenkin, a professor of computer science and engineering in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering.

Begun in 1992, the centre initially keyed on psychophysics, the classical study of the differences in the ways people may see colours or perceive orientations. It now includes massive virtual reality components, space studies – it has sent experiments up on the shuttle – the measurement of electrical activity in the brain, clinical studies of stroke patients and brain imaging. The centre is working on a plan to install its own magnetic resonance imaging machine in the old ice palace, Crawford says.

Most of the centre’s attempts to drill deeper into the neurology of vision are made with medical advancements in mind, Crawford says. "The hope is that as medical technologies evolve, once we understand how things work then we can help to fix them when they don’t work."

  • In an accompanying story, the Star highlighted a study published this month that helps explain why some people are worse drivers than others. The study keys on the constant and largely unconscious eye movements we make every second – known as saccades – and how our brains process and store the visual information those flitting glimpses take in. Doug Crawford says our brains can generally remember three of four of the objects these saccades take in at any particular time and is constantly updating those memories. "And that’s enough basically as you walk or drive. You create this sort of sketchpad of what’s around you," he says.  

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, showed for the first time that the parietal cortex was involved in this rolling memory system and was critical in our perception of the physical world around us. "The reason we’re not literally killing each other right and left on the roads is that we have the capacity to keep track of objects to the left or right, even though you can’t see the cars.” While alcohol and drugs are obvious disrupters, things like viruses or simple sleepiness can also disrupt the parietal functions, Crawford says.

Public image of homeless off base

Calgarians may realize homelessness is at crisis levels, but too many don’t understand there’s more to the problem than visibly bedraggled panhandlers or guys seen muttering to themselves as they push shopping carts, researchers say, reported the Calgary Herald Aug. 20 in coverage of a Calgary Homeless Foundation conference.

But there’s no research into what Calgarians actually do know or understand about homelessness. That’s a study largely absent anywhere in Canada, said Stephen Gaetz, associate dean of York’s Faculty of Education and head of the upstart Canadian Homelessness Research Network. The lack of public surveys was highlighted at the first-ever national conference on the issue in 2005 at York but little has been done since, said Gaetz. The second conference will take place next year at the University of Calgary.