Active visual search in non-stationary scenes: coping with temporal variability and uncertainty.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE State-of-the-art experiments for studying neural processes underlying visual cognition often constrain sensory inputs (e.g., static images) and our behavior (e.g., fixed eye-gaze, long eye fixations), isolating or simplifying the interaction of neural processes. Motivated by the non-stationarity of our natural visual environment, we investigated the electroencephalography (EEG) correlates of visual recognition while participants overtly performed visual search in non-stationary scenes. We hypothesized that visual effects (such as those typically used in human-computer interfaces) may increase temporal uncertainty (with reference to fixation onset) of cognition-related EEG activity in an active search task and therefore require novel techniques for single-trial detection. APPROACH We addressed fixation-related EEG activity in an active search task with respect to stimulus-appearance styles and dynamics. Alongside popping-up stimuli, our experimental study embraces two composite appearance styles based on fading-in, enlarging, and motion effects. Additionally, we explored whether the knowledge obtained in the pop-up experimental setting can be exploited to boost the EEG-based intention-decoding performance when facing transitional changes of visual content. MAIN RESULTS The results confirmed our initial hypothesis that the dynamic of visual content can increase temporal uncertainty of the cognition-related EEG activity in active search with respect to fixation onset. This temporal uncertainty challenges the pivotal aim to keep the decoding performance constant irrespective of visual effects. Importantly, the proposed approach for EEG decoding based on knowledge transfer between the different experimental settings gave a promising performance. SIGNIFICANCE Our study demonstrates that the non-stationarity of visual scenes is an important factor in the evolution of cognitive processes, as well as in the dynamic of ocular behavior (i.e., dwell time and fixation duration) in an active search task. In addition, our method to improve single-trial detection performance in this adverse scenario is an important step in making brain-computer interfacing technology available for human-computer interaction applications.

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