The human retina sends an estimated 10 million bits of data per second to the brain—a continuous process that runs from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep. We interpret this visual data unconsciously to perceive the shapes, colours and movements of the people and objects around us. And alongside our other four senses, we use our sense of sight to make sense of the world in ways we don’t often interrogate.
But for Shui’er Han, recipient of the A*STAR International Fellowship Award, it was her exposure to sensory perception research as a research assistant and later as a graduate student that opened her eyes to vision science, or the fascinating and multidisciplinary field that studies the intricate ways we process the neural signals our eyes send to our brains.
Combining optometry, computer science, neuroscience and psychology, Han studies how experience affects perception. In some studies, she looks into how showing rapidly changing images to one eye can keep the other eye from perceiving something right in front of it. In others, she shows how temporarily depriving sight of the periphery of one eye can increase its sensitivity—research that may lead to creative treatments for eye disorders like amblyopia.
Han hopes to translate her findings on visual awareness into real-life applications, whether that’s in improving clinical treatments, refining product design or improving accessibility and inclusivity for those with sensory perception issues, such as the autistic community.
In this interview with A*STAR Research, Han talks about her journey from the social sciences to computer science and experimental psychology, and how her research may lead to exciting and more inclusive products and treatments.
Q: What inspired you to be a vision scientist and apply for the A*STAR International Fellowship (AIF) Award?
I became interested in sensory perception during my stint as a research assistant at the Duke–NUS Medical School from 2009 to 2012, and my interests underwent a period of refining during graduate school.
Before this period, I thought vision science was about ophthalmology and optometry. However, exposure to this field showed me a very wide and exciting field that crosses multiple disciplines. For example, basic vision science knowledge such as image contrast, perception of glossiness and depth is very useful for designing 3D graphics and improving virtual reality (VR) experiences. In addition, some visual phenomena can be used as non-invasive markers of certain brain functions.
As my work sits at the intersection of basic vision science and translational research, the AIF was a good choice for me, given the interdisciplinary and collaborative potential of A*STAR.
Q: Can you tell us more about your research on experience and perception?
My work thus far is focused on simulating naturalistic experiences using 3D technology and VR. Previous vision science experiments didn’t properly represent what we experience in the real world, as they tended to sacrifice realism for experimental control.
Given the advances in 3D technology and VR, we have an opportunity to combine the rigour of basic research techniques and realism. These naturalistic experience simulations can be used in many ways, including providing more realistic visual screening tools and evaluating display designs and optical treatments.
Q: What are your innovation goals for your work?
I hope to improve treatment and product design by incorporating sensory experiences—be it from basic research findings in vision science or through simulations. Sensory experience is what we deal with daily, and so incorporating it into product and treatment designs may offer opportunities for design improvement and inclusiveness.
Q: Could you describe a current project you are working on?
One of the projects I’m working on right now involves rendering a real-life concert hall into a 3D model for VR and 3D audio recording. This is a collaborative effort with multiple groups at the University of Rochester. I am very grateful for this collaboration because it is quite a massive undertaking. We currently have a working, naturalistic 3D audio-visual VR experience that can be used to assess 3D audio-visual perception in different populations.
Moving forward, we hope to explore how different populations perceive light and sound in this VR environment, as previous research using unnatural stimuli have has suggested differences in audio-visual perception in autistic individuals and those with schizophrenia.
Q: You’ve participated in several science communication events. Why do you think science communication is important?
A lot of advances in science are locked behind journal paywalls and—at least to my knowledge—a lot more can be done to relay this information to the general public. Considering that one goal of research is to better mankind and the environment, it would be a pity if this knowledge is not shared.
In addition, science is widely applicable to many domains, even art! So, sharing our scientific knowledge can potentially benefit other fields, even though it may not be obvious to us.
Plus, science communication can inspire the next generation. I vividly remember an incident during a public outreach event. We were demonstrating visual illusions to a class of young children when one of them came up to us and expressed interest in becoming a scientist when they grew up. That made our day.
Q: How do you see your research evolving in the next decade?
I see my work moving towards developing inclusive experiences by incorporating sensory experience in product and treatment design. I hope that I will get to apply sensory knowledge to more fields not typically associated with the public notion of science, such as art.
Q: As an aspiring innovator, what advice do you have for other young scientists?
Be open to different kinds of knowledge and fields. And just try. Visiting different labs has shown me so many interesting approaches to science. Just knowing that makes the entire process fun and exciting.