The aim of this study was to investigate the role of visual information in the control of walking over complex terrain with irregularly spaced obstacles. We developed an experimental paradigm to measure how far along the future path people need to see in order to maintain forward progress and avoid stepping on obstacles. Participants walked over an array of randomly distributed virtual obstacles that were projected onto the floor by an LCD projector while their movements were tracked by a full-body motion capture system. Walking behavior in a full-vision control condition was compared with behavior in a number of other visibility conditions in which obstacles did not appear until they fell within a window of visibility centered on the moving observer. Collisions with obstacles were more frequent and, for some participants, walking speed was slower when the visibility window constrained vision to less than two step lengths ahead. When window sizes were greater than two step lengths, the frequency of collisions and walking speed were weakly affected or unaffected. We conclude that visual information from at least two step lengths ahead is needed to guide foot placement when walking over complex terrain. When placed in the context of recent research on the biomechanics of walking, the findings suggest that two step lengths of visual information may be needed because it allows walkers to exploit the passive mechanical forces inherent to bipedal locomotion, thereby avoiding obstacles while maximizing energetic efficiency.
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