Despite the ecological importance of gaze following, little is known about the underlying neuronal processes, which allow us to extract gaze direction from the geometric features of the eye and head of a conspecific. In order to understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying this ability, a careful description of the capacity and the limitations of gaze following at the behavioral level is needed. Previous studies of gaze following, which relied on naturalistic settings have the disadvantage of allowing only very limited control of potentially relevant visual features guiding gaze following, such as the contrast of iris and sclera, the shape of the eyelids and--in the case of photographs--they lack depth. Hence, in order to get full control of potentially relevant features we decided to study gaze following of human observers guided by the gaze of a human avatar seen stereoscopically. To this end we established a stereoscopic 3D virtual reality setup, in which we tested human subjects' abilities to detect at which target a human avatar was looking at. Following the gaze of the avatar showed all the features of the gaze following of a natural person, namely a substantial degree of precision associated with a consistent pattern of systematic deviations from the target. Poor stereo vision affected performance surprisingly little (only in certain experimental conditions). Only gaze following guided by targets at larger downward eccentricities exhibited a differential effect of the presence or absence of accompanying movements of the avatar's eyelids and eyebrows.
Keywords: Gaze following; Human avatar; Social attention; Stereoscopic 3D environment.
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