The Synoptic Art Experience

in Art & Perception
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At the start of the 20th century, Moritz von Rohr invented the synopter: a device that removes 3D depth cues that arise from binocular disparities and vergence. In the absence of these visual cues, the observer is less aware of the physical flatness of the picture. This results in a surprisingly increased depth impression of pictorial space, historically known as the ‘plastic effect’. In this paper we present a practical design to produce a synopter and explore which elements of a painting influence the plastic effect. In the first experiment we showed 22 different paintings to a total of 35 observers, and found that they rate the synoptic effect rather consistent over the various paintings. Subsequent analyses indicated that at least three pictorial cues were relevant for the synoptic effect: figure–ground contrast, compositional depth and shadows. In experiment 2, we used manipulated pictures where we tried to strengthen or weaken these cues. In all three cases we found at least one effect that confirmed our hypothesis. We also found substantial individual differences: some observers experience little effect, while others are very surprised by the effect. A stereo acuity test revealed that these differences could not be attributed to how well disparities are detected. Lastly, we informally tested our newly designed synopter in museums and found similar idiosyncratic appraisal. But the device also turned out to facilitate discussions among visitors.

The Synoptic Art Experience

in Art & Perception



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    Overview of viewing devices that enhance pictorial depth. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Original images from Von Rohrs’ patent claim. We have reshuffled the figures to match the order of Fig. 3, which uses a similar labelling A–C. The labelling ‘Fig. 4’ etc., refers to the original patent. Von Rohr drew the basic optics of the three designs in the left column. The drawings in the middle and right column are practical implementations of these three types.

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    Overview of three different synopter designs by von Rohr. We recalculated the optics and found for a fixed distance of 20 mm to the closest mirror three different fields of view, ranging from 21° to 35.3°.

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    Transmission spectrum of a perspex half mirror. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Left: the setup we used to make the photographs through both peepholes of the synopter. The camera was on a slider, so two parallel pictures were made with a 6.5 cm lateral translation difference. Right: right–left image pairs are shown. The placement of the right picture on the left side and vice versa was on purpose, to allow visual cross fusion for the trained reader. A) pictures through the synopter without the giraffe object. The images differ in brightness and colour, as predicted by the mirror characteristics. B) Same images but now with a toy giraffe in front to validate that there is no parallax between the two eyes. C) Images taken without the synopter. The relative position of the giraffe in the right eye image (shown left) remains unchanged, but in the left eye a parallactic displacement is visible. Cross fusion will reveal a clear binocular stereoscopic impression. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    The left column shows renderings of the model, including an ‘exploded view’. The middle and right columns show photographs of the synopter used in this research. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Results of group 1 (N = 15) shown in a box whisker plot. The grey bar denotes the second and third quartiles (i.e. 50% of the responses); the ‘whiskers’ denote the maximum scores. The black lines indicate the median values and the white lines the mean values. The paintings were ordered with respect to the means (white lines). Each painting is shown in thumbnail format at the specific data points. The dashed boxes denote paintings that were also measured in the other group, which can be used as intergroup comparison. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Results of group 2 (N = 20) shown in a box whisker plot. For an explanation see caption of figure 7. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Annotations of observers indicating in which parts of the painting the effect was particularly strong in painting set 2. The images are ordered with respect to synoptic effect (as in Fig. 8) and N denotes number of annotations made by observers. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Details of the dashed squared areas shown in Fig. 9. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Image manipulations to strengthen (7, 20, 4, 1, 22, 9, 21) or weaken (14, 6, 12, 15, 11) the plastic effect. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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    Relation between stereo acuity and overall rating of the plastic effect. Filled circles denote participants that correlated negatively with the group means and were discarded in the further analysis.

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    Overview of the effect of various image manipulations on the synoptic experience. Left bars denote the original stimulus, right bars the manipulated versions. The plus and minus signs indicate the expected difference. Originals are shown in thumbnails, the edited version can be seen in Fig. 11. Significant differences are marked by an asterisk. This figure is published in colour in the online version.

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