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Evan Palmer, Christopher Brown, Timothy Clausner, Philip Kellman; Visual search in air traffic control: Altitude correlated depth cues enhance conflict detection. Journal of Vision 2008;8(6):324. doi: 10.1167/8.6.324.
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Air traffic controllers engage in a highly demanding attentional task that is vital for public safety. The amount of air traffic continues to increase on a yearly basis and the number of experienced controllers is dwindling due to a higher than expected retirement rate. Both of these factors point towards the need to improve air traffic control displays to make them easier to understand and use. Previous work (Palmer, Clausner & Kellman, in press) has shown that the altitude-correlated depth cues of size and contrast improve conflict detection and decrease search time in simulated air traffic control displays. Here, we address the question of whether the benefit is due to the mere presence of guiding features or whether there is an additional contribution from depth perception processes. Participants searched for aircraft conflicts (potential mid-air collisions) in simulated air traffic control displays. Observers were instructed to either imagine they were looking down on the scenario from above or up at the scenario from below. Aircraft icons were presented in different sizes and contrasts that correlated with their altitude. In the depth-consistent condition, aircraft icons obeyed the depth cues of relative size and aerial perspective. In the depth-inconsistent conditions, one or the other or both cues were opposite to the canonical depth ordering. Results indicate that depth-consistent graphical cues aid conflict detection, which suggests that guiding features are important, but guiding features that correlate with ecological depth ordering enjoy a privileged status in the visual system. There also appears to be a hierarchy of depth cue effectiveness, with size consistent conditions yielding better performance than contrast consistent conditions. We discuss the implications of these findings for air traffic control displays in particular and the graphical presentation of complex information in general.
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