Shape, motion, and optical cues to stiffness of elastic objects

J Vis. 2017 Jan 1;17(1):20. doi: 10.1167/17.1.20.


Nonrigid materials, such as jelly, rubber, or sponge move and deform in distinctive ways depending on their stiffness. Which cues do we use to infer stiffness? We simulated cubes of varying stiffness and optical appearance (e.g., wood, metal, wax, jelly) being subjected to two kinds of deformation: (a) a rigid cylinder pushing downwards into the cube to various extents (shape change, but little motion: shape dominant), (b) a rigid cylinder retracting rapidly from the cube (same initial shapes, differences in motion: motion dominant). Observers rated the apparent softness/hardness of the cubes. In the shape-dominant condition, ratings mainly depended on how deeply the rod penetrated the cube and were almost unaffected by the cube's intrinsic physical properties. In contrast, in the motion-dominant condition, ratings varied systematically with the cube's intrinsic stiffness, and were less influenced by the extent of the perturbation. We find that both results are well predicted by the absolute magnitude of deformation, suggesting that when asked to judge stiffness, observers resort to simple heuristics based on the amount of deformation. Softness ratings for static, unperturbed cubes varied substantially and systematically depending on the optical properties. However, when animated, the ratings were again dominated by the extent of the deformation, and the effect of optical appearance was negligible. Together, our results suggest that to estimate stiffness, the visual system strongly relies on measures of the extent to which an object changes shape in response to forces.

MeSH terms

  • Cues*
  • Elasticity
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motion
  • Motion Perception / physiology*