We created a sequential ideal-observer model that could address the question, How much of letter identification performance and its change with eccentricity can be accounted for by preneural factors? The ideal-observer model takes into account preneural factors including the stimulus rendering properties of a CRT display, the optical imaging quality of the eye, and photon capture and sampling characteristics of the cones. We validated the formulation of the model by comparing its performance on simple psychophysical tasks with that of previous sequential ideal-observer models. The model was used to study properties of the image rendering of letters. For example, the model’s identification of high-resolution letters (i.e., many pixels per letter), but not low-resolution letters, is largely immune to changes in pixel width. We compared human and ideal-observer letter-identification acuity for the lowercase alphabet at 0°, 5°, and 20° retinal eccentricity. Acuity of the ideal observer for high-contrast letters is approximately seven times better than that of the human observers at 0°. Acuity decreased with eccentricity more rapidly for human observers than for the ideal observer such that the thresholds differed by a factor of 50 at 20°. A decrease in stimulus duration from 100 to 33 ms resulted in no decrease in relative threshold size between the human and ideal observers at all eccentricities, indicating that humans effectively integrate stimulus information over this range. Decreasing contrast from 75% to 25%, however, reduced the difference in acuities twofold at all eccentricities between humans and the ideal-observer model, consistent with the presence a compressive nonlinearity only in the human observers. The gap between human and ideal acuity in central vision means that there are substantial limitations in human letter recognition beyond the stage of photoreceptor sampling. The increasing performance gap between human and ideal-observer performance with eccentricity implicates an increasing role of neural limitations with eccentricity in limiting human letter identification.
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