The Importance of Understanding Perception

Back in undergrad I did my research thesis on phenomeonlogy — I was interested in understanding how we break down “experience,” specifically perceptual and spatial experience. It’s buried somewhere deep in the Cornell stacks — (the only other person who read it all the way through is my brother). I wanted to understand the sequence of a body in motion, and how our brains and minds experience. What I was really after was a way of designing and creating through narrative and sequence, and being able to understand the ‘horizons’, to use Husserl’s term, Crudely — the connections we make and how they unfold in sequence.

Husserl- this was my guy!

I recently started reading Eric Kandel’s new book, “Reductionism in Art and Science: Bridging the Two Cultures.” Since working on a computer vision startup, I’ve followed explosion of MSQRD and Looksery. By understanding how our brains and minds (see Kandel) are wired to detect faces, it isn’t surprising why these apps have been so successful: we are wired to look at faces, and even more specifically, drawn to stare at peoples’ eyes and mouths. What I found more interesting was that giant cartoon eyes generate even more attention by the bottom-up processes (*) related to seeing than normal faces. Cartoonists know this innately — see almost every character created by Pixar — or Disney — giant eyes everywhere! Even in moments were the eyes are not magnitudes larger than they would be in the real world, frequently artists use high contrast to make them scream at us.

Giant eyes in Pixar characters
Where do your eyes go?

I became fascinated with perception through my background in architecture and landscape architecture. The same bottom up and top down processing that dominates our visual processing system has been reverberating around art and architecture for thousands of years. Symmetry, contrast, and architectural form — the sinuous lines of baroque and contemporary architecture, or the perfect symmetry of Greek and Beaux Arts. It all travels through neural networks influenced by how we perceive people, and its partly — key word there- built in.

Pazzi Chapel by Brunelleschi — note the outlines of classical architecture in stark contrast
Contrast, eyes, and lines

Designers, artists, writers — understand this. Design in many ways is the skill of influencing perception. How many products are there for highlighting eyes with makeup? Computer vision technology, virtual reality, image processing, neural networks, machine learning, etc. applications can find inspiration in biology, psychology, and neuroscience texts. Investors who are targeting these fields should be well versed in our perceptual system, and how we — all humans, or in tech lingo — the set of users worldwide, perceive the world.

Investors who are making huge bets on companies in these areas need to understand the fine-grained nuances in perception given the investments in technology that play out on a surface area of about 14 1/3 square inches — less than that of an average human hand.* Doing a computer vision, design focused startup I have spoken with a few investors who don’t understand perception — it can be a little surprising considering how many resources are committed to it. If you understand it well, it’s literally a gold mine.

If there are any readers — please forgive typos, no links, no works cited, poor grammar, bad wording, etc. I’ve recently decided to write on Medium instead of in Evernote, and the only way I can do this in limited time is to write roughly and pretty carelessly.