Adding Depth to Overlapping Displays Can Improve Visual Search Performance

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Standard models of visual search have focused upon asking participants to search for a single target in displays where the objects do not overlap one another, and where the objects are presented on a single depth plane. This stands in contrast to many everyday visual searches wherein variations in overlap and depth are the norm, rather than the exception. Here, we addressed whether presenting overlapping objects on different depths planes to one another can improve search performance. Across 4 different experiments using different stimulus types (opaque polygons, transparent polygons, opaque real-world objects, and transparent X-ray images), we found that depth was primarily beneficial when the displays were transparent, and this benefit arose in terms of an increase in response accuracy. Although the benefit to search performance only appeared in some cases, across all stimulus types, we found evidence of marked shifts in eye-movement behavior. Our results have important implications for current models and theories of visual search, which have not yet provided detailed accounts of the effects that overlap and depth have on guidance and object identification processes. Moreover, our results show that the presence of depth information could aid real-world searches of complex, overlapping displays.

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