The optic flow arising in the eyes of an observer during self-motion is influenced by the occurrence of eye movements. The determination of heading during eye movements may be based on the pattern of retinal image motion (the retinal flow) or on an additional use of an extraretinal eye-movement signal. Previous research has presented support for either of these hypotheses, depending on the movement geometry and the layout of the visual scene. A special situation in which all previous studies unequivocally have agreed that an extraretinal signal is required occurs when the visual scene consists of a single frontoparallel plane. In this situation eye movements shift the center of expansion on the retina to a location that does not correspond to the direction of self-movement. Without extraretinal input, human observers confuse the center of expansion with their heading and show a systematical heading estimation error. We reexamined and further investigated this situation. We presented retinal flow stimuli on a large projection screen in the absence of extraretinal input and varied stimulus size, presentation duration, and orientation of the plane. In contrast to previous studies we found that in the case of a perpendicular approach toward the plane, heading judgments can be accurate. Accurate judgments were observed when the field of view was large and the stimulus duration was short (⩽0.5 s). For a small field of view or a prolonged stimulus presentation, a systematic and previously described error appeared that is related to the radial structure of the flow field and the location of the center of expansion. An oblique approach toward the plane results in an ambiguous flow field with two mathematically possible solutions for heading. In this situation, when the stimulus duration was short, subjects reported a perceived heading midway between these two solutions. For longer flow sequences, subjects again chose the center of expansion. Our results suggest a dynamical change in the analysis or interpretation of retinal flow during heading perception.
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