Controlling for Participants' Viewing Distance in Large-Scale, Psychophysical Online Experiments Using a Virtual Chinrest

Sci Rep. 2020 Jan 22;10(1):904. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-57204-1.


While online experiments have shown tremendous potential to study larger and more diverse participant samples than is possible in the lab, the uncontrolled online environment has prohibited many types of psychophysical studies due to difficulties controlling the viewing distance and stimulus size. We introduce the Virtual Chinrest, a method that measures a participant's viewing distance in the web browser by detecting a participant's blind spot location. This makes it possible to automatically adjust stimulus configurations based on an individual's viewing distance. We validated the Virtual Chinrest in two laboratory studies in which we varied the viewing distance and display size, showing that our method estimates participants' viewing distance with an average error of 3.25 cm. We additionally show that by using the Virtual Chinrest we can reliably replicate measures of visual crowding, which depends on a precise calculation of visual angle, in an uncontrolled online environment. An online experiment with 1153 participants further replicated the findings of prior laboratory work, demonstrating how visual crowding increases with eccentricity and extending this finding by showing that young children, older adults and people with dyslexia all exhibit increased visual crowding, compared to adults without dyslexia. Our method provides a promising pathway to web-based psychophysical research requiring controlled stimulus geometry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Crowding
  • Distance Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Online Systems*
  • Optic Disk
  • Psychophysics / methods*
  • User-Computer Interface*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Web Browser*