August Lab of the Month: Dr. Rensink’s lab explores the science behind visualization

If you’ve ever seen a magic show, you’ve probably seen the age-old trick: an object disappears from the palm of the magician’s hand. Of course, the object doesn’t actually disappear into thin air — the magician uses visual cues to trick you into thinking so. The science behind magic is just one of many phenomena of visual perception that fascinates the Visual Cognition Lab (VCL).

The VCL explores visual cognition; the study of understanding how we see. Dr. Ronald Rensink, Director of the VCL, describes the lab’s research as reverse-engineering the human visual system.

“The goal is to try to understand an existing system, rather than simply build one from scratch,” says Rensink, professor in psychology and computer science at UBC. “Visual perception is a complex process, which makes the latter quite difficult. The VCL aims to first understand the human visual system, and then understand what the system is trying to do. Once we understand that, we can try to figure out how it operates.”

One research area in the lab is understanding the visual perception of information visualization systems. The goal here is to develop a “science of visualization” — which falls somewhere between ‘science’ and ‘application’.  An example of this is the perception of correlation in scatterplots; this looks at how humans interpret such visual representations to “see” trends, outliers, etc. The VCL first took an interest in data science in 2006, over 10 years ago, before it became the massive research area it is today. “At the time, relatively few people had much awareness that data was growing exponentially,” says Rensink. Much of the VCL’s research involves exploring new areas that have yet to be navigated — which Rensink admits can come with a great degree of uncertainty. However, in an era where data science has become such an important area, it seems that for the VCL, tackling unknown fields of research has paid off.

Another notable project by the VCL is the perceptual modes (SHIVA) project. This project is part of a collaboration with Kyoto University which explores how cultural differences affect one’s visual perception. It examines the way people of Western and Eastern cultural backgrounds use different modes of perception when searching for patterns in closely similar images.

The VCL’s methods don’t exactly fall under the umbrella of typical science, where research is often done using existing tools and methods. Instead, the lab designs many new approaches, as well as their own tools — as made evident by the lab’s colourful assortment of retro iMac computers which run programs that Rensink built himself years ago. Yet, the lab’s methods aren’t purely applied either — they still use traditional scientific methods to record and analyze data.

Aside from the various projects the lab is working on, the VCL is not just a place for research. Rensink believes that if you want passionate researchers, you have to create a supportive and encouraging working environment. “When I worked for Nissan in Japan years ago, I was inspired by the way social culture was integrated into work culture,” says Rensink. “I thought it worthwhile to bring this atmosphere into my lab. Students can easily become alienated in a big university like UBC, and they see the VCL as a place for people to come together and feel at home.”

Through the lab’s apprenticeship system, Rensink aims to foster a culture of learning and growth in the VCL. Students can enter the lab as volunteer ‘co-pilots,’ where they can choose a project to work on for two weeks. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you can continue working on it. If not — you’re free to explore other projects that interest you more,” Rensink explains. Instead of having project leaders hand off tasks to co-pilots and volunteers, Rensink encourages that members seek tasks and solutions themselves, and help each other in the process. This way everyone has an opportunity to teach and learn from one another.

Members of the VCL also have the opportunity to develop management and organization skills through workshops, presentations, and even improv sessions. The lab organizes activities based on their members’ interests and the kinds of skills they want to work on. The lab also organizes a variety of social events such as board game nights, dinners, movie nights, and journal clubs. Wendy Chai and Sogol Ghattan-Kashani, two of the VCL’s lab managers, have worked their way through the lab’s apprenticeship system. Both agree that working with the VCL has been a fantastic opportunity to not only engage with people and get involved, but also develop invaluable life skills and relationships.

What’s the most important trait the VCL looks for in a lab member? Passion. “A passion to learn, and being unafraid to do things yourself,” Rensink says. By nature, the research conducted by the VCL is often new and unprecedented. “This means there’s huge potential for new discoveries, but consequently a lot of uncertainty as well… the lab very often encounters the question what are we doing?”

But it’s that curiosity and marvel for new discoveries in which the VCL thrives.

-Cleo Tracey