Influence of Optical Material Properties on the Perception of Liquids

J Vis. 2016 Dec 1;16(15):12. doi: 10.1167/16.15.12.


In everyday life we encounter a wide range of liquids (e.g., water, custard, toothpaste) with distinctive optical appearances and viscosities. Optical properties (e.g., color, translucency) are physically independent of viscosity, but, based on experience with real liquids, we may associate specific appearances (e.g., water, caramel) with certain viscosities. Conversely, the visual system may discount optical properties, enabling "viscosity constancy" based primarily on the liquid's shape and motion. We investigated whether optical characteristics affect the perception of viscosity and other properties of liquids. We simulated pouring liquids with viscosities ranging from water to molten glass and rendered them with nine different optical characteristics. In Experiment 1, observers (a) adjusted a match stimulus until it had the same perceived viscosity as a test stimulus with different optical properties, and (b) rated six physical properties of the test stimuli (runniness, shininess, sliminess, stickiness, warmth, wetness). We tested moving and static stimuli. In Experiment 2, observers had to associate names with every liquid in the stimulus set. We find that observers' viscosity matches correlated strongly with the true viscosities and that optical properties had almost no effect. However, some ratings of liquid properties did show substantial interactions between viscosity and optical properties. Observers associate liquid names primarily with optical cues, although some materials are associated with a specific viscosity or combination of viscosity and optics. These results suggest viscosity is inferred primarily from shape and motion cues but that optical characteristics influence recognition of specific liquids and inference of other physical properties.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Optics and Photonics*
  • Viscosity*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Water
  • Young Adult


  • Water