Is it natural? The physics of perception

Physics of perception We instinctively know whether something is natural, or a synthetic mimic. But what are the key physical properties responsible for this perception? And can we measure these in such a way that we can make predictions of perceived naturalness? This project seeks to find out.

National Physical Laboratory; Unilever Research, Port Sunlight Laboratory; Trinity College, Dublin University, Ireland; Parc Científic de Barcelona, Universitat de Barcelona, Spain

Human beings find it quite easy to distinguish between, natural and synthetic materials so what processes enable us to make this distinction? How do we so easily know wood from vinyl or cotton from nylon? A unique multidisciplinary team of researchers is trying to find the answer, creating what would be the first predictive model of our perception of naturalness.

‘Our senses combine to identify natural materials,’ explains Ruth Montgomery of the National Physical Laboratory. ‘But what are the key factors, is it colour, gloss, texture, temperature? This is what our research is trying to establish.’

The team includes neuroscientists who scan the brain activity of individuals as they examine different materials; psychologists who measure the way people react to different materials when they use their hands or eyes or both and the National Physical Laboratory who contribute expertise in making hard physical measurements of the properties of different materials.

‘The focus of the research is wood and fabric but once the data is combined the aim is to produce a predictive computer model that will work for other materials,’ says Ruth.

Applications of the research could be in making more natural synthetics, or more realistic environments for virtual surgery used to train surgeons.

Useful links