When looking isn't seeing: Is cockpit design flawed?

New research suggests that the design of aircraft cockpit displays may benefit from a radical change. The work, to be reported in a forthcoming issue of Phil. Trans. A, a journal of the Royal Society, challenges the previous scientific consensus and indicates that changing displays so they flicker, use one colour and contain more objects will better stimulate visual reactions in pilots than conventional multi-coloured outline displays.

The potential advantages for new types of display arise because our conscious visual perception of the environment is very restricted. The retina in the human eye can register literally thousands of pieces of information simultaneously. But how this information is processed by the brain to isolate a limited number of important features of our environment and allow us to react is a complex process. It has consequences for the design of many critical machine-man interfaces from fighter pilot cockpits to vehicle dashboards and virtual gaming environments.

Saw it still hit it

"Although the human eye can code many object-images simultaneously, we are only aware of a tiny fraction of this information," explains Dr. Greg Davis of Cambridge University. "Our 'visual' brain has evolved to prioritize relevant features in a scene and ignore irrelevant ones." But this selectivity can lead to problems in information-rich environments, for example driving a car or landing an aircraft, where we need to monitor a large number of items. In some cases vision can fail to cope and accidents result. Examples include 'looked but failed to see' accidents in which sober drivers run into highly visible, stationary police cars in broad daylight.

To reduce the incidence of these events, a large amount of research in psychophysics and ergonomics has examined how display characteristics effect our ability to simultaneously process multiple features in the visual environment.

Flawed consensus

The majority

Contact: Tim Reynolds
Royal Society

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