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Depth perception box in psychology

The Depth Perception Apparatus tests depth perception acuity. Depth perception is the ability to see the world in three dimensions and to perceive distance (the ability to judge which of several objects is closer or farther away from you, or to judge the distance between you and an object).

The Depth Perception Apparatus represents the state-of-the-art in sensation and perception measurement technology, and offers feature-packed high performance, functionality, accuracy, ease-of-use, and expandability.


Good depth perception is critical among people engaged in certain occupations, trades, or professions, i.e. airplane and helicopter pilots, crane operators, bus drivers, athletes etc. Since good depth perception is so important to these professions, testing devices that can determine the quality of an individual’s depth perception are essential for use in the employment selection process. Furthermore, the Depth Perception Apparatus can be found in hundreds of psychology laboratories worldwide, where they are used for research, as well as demonstrations for sensation and perception classes.


The subject uses a digital joystick to adjust one vertical rod housed in an aluminum case. Adjustments are made in order to place rods at equal distance from the subject or to place one rod at a determined distance behind the other. An illuminated housing (high-intensity LED light) eliminates all depth cues, so the subject must judge depth based on visual perception alone.

Depth perception is an integral part of everyday life, and it’s needed when determining distance and how quickly an object is moving towards you. Whether you are crossing the street or passing another car, depth perception keeps you at a safe distance.

If you have trouble perceiving distance, a depth perception test, which can be conducted at home and in an optometrist’s office, can determine how both of your eyes together to see in three dimensions. Testing can help your eye care professional recommend depth perception exercises or in some cases, corrective eye wear so that your eyes can work together to get you safely to where you need to go.

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

What Is Depth Perception?

Depth perception is the ability to see things in three dimensions, including length, height, width, and distance. Depth perception works through convergence, which generally happens when both eyes focus on the same object, stretching the extraocular muscles that control the eyeball’s movement within the socket.

When both eyes are both focusing on the same object, each eye sees it from a slightly different angle since they are located on opposite sides of the face. The brain compares and processes each eye’s information to form a unified image that you see. When the process works properly—when both eyes see clearly and the image is processed efficiently—that result is called stereopsis.  

When someone does not have binocular (two-eyed) vision, the process of seeing depth becomes more complicated. At least 12% of the population has some problem with their binocular vision.

People who see through one eye, or have monocular vision, may have some trouble with depth perception. Over time, the brain may adjust to using the limited visual information that it gets from one eye to form an image, and this usually results in acceptable depth perception.

The consequences of poor depth perception include:

  • Inability to perform normal tasks, such as driving or reading
  • Learning difficulties in children
  • Difficulties in playing sports

How To Test Depth Perception

At-home Test

Before making an appointment with an optometrist for a depth perception test, you can try a home test to check your depth perception. For this test, you will just need two things: a white piece of paper with a colored circle in the middle and your index finger.

Once you have both handy, perform these steps to test your depth perception:

  • Post the paper with the dot on a wall
  • Hold your finger in front of the circle between your eyes and the paper
  • Focus your eyes on the circle. You should see the circle clearly in the middle between the two images of your finger. The finger will appear slightly blurry and a bit transparent.
  • Then, focus on your finger. The two images of your finger that you saw in the previous step should merge together into one finger while the circle splits into two

Repeat this process a few times to see if your results change or stay consistent.

Getting Tested By an Optometrist

Make an appointment to see your optometrist if you see any of the following during your home test:

  •    One finger is easier to see than the other
  •    One finger is larger than the other
  •    Fingers appear and disappear
  •    One finger drifts directly over the circle while the other finger is far to the left or right
  •    You can only ever see one finger

A comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist will usually include a depth perception test. They may ask you to put on a pair of 3D glasses and look at a booklet of test patterns. Each pattern has four small circles, and you will be asked to determine which circle in each pattern looks closer to you than the other three circles. If you can correctly identify the closer circle in each pattern, you are probably experiencing what is considered normal depth perception.

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There are two types of depth perception tests:

  • Random-dot stereograms, also referred to as the Randot Stereotest, the Random-dot E Stereotest, and the Lang Stereotest, are used to eliminate monocular cues or signals.These tests use two images, each composed of black and white dots or squares. While each eye sees a different pattern in the dots, when seen together, the patterns are seen as a specific shape
  • Contour stereotests, such as the Titmus Fly Stereotest, evaluate two horizontally different stimuli. The people taking the test looks at images (like that of a fly), and are instructed to identify the one that seems to be popping out of the page

Causes of Depth Perception Problems

Some conditions that can cause depth perception problems include:

  •    Blurry vision, usually in one eye
  •    Strabismus (poor muscle control that can result in crossed eyes)
  •    Amblyopia (weak or lazy eye)
  •    Nerve problems in one or both eyes
  •    Trauma to one or both eyes (caused by a direct blow or injury)

Improving Depth Perception Problems 

Vision therapy can help in treating depth perception issues. Vision therapists train a person’s brain to blend the images from each eye or ignore the image from the eye that is not as cooperative.

A few depth perception exercises can help:

  • Eye Rolling: Helps to strengthen nerve impulses that create awareness of proper depth. When beginning this exercise, slowly roll your eyes clockwise for a few minutes, then switch and roll them counterclockwise for a few minutes
  • Shifting your gaze: While rolling your eyes, shift your gaze slowly, especially when first beginning the exercise
  • Resting the dominant eye: So that the weaker eye does not strain. Cover the dominant eye for several minutes to allow the weaker eye to take over. This is usually done with an eye patch
  • Low light: Resting your eyes from light may ease pressure on the dominant eye without causing strain in the weaker eye

Sometimes, an optometrist will prescribe contact lenses or eyeglasses to block unclear images from the bad eye so they do not interfere with images from the good eye.

Helpful Tips If You Have a Depth Perception Issue

  • Visit the eye doctor once per year for a vision check. 
  • Hold onto the handrails when using stairs. 
  • Avoid night driving.

A Word From Verywell

Depth perception problems are generally not caused by serious underlying conditions and can be easily corrected. You can try an at-home test, but after that, you should also consult an eye care professional because there is a chance that your at-home vision test was not done properly. Eye health is crucial for many different daily activities, so getting your eyes checked out by an optometrist when you have problems with your vision can avoid any unwanted disruption to your routine.

Depth perception

Monocular cues

Binocular cues

Auditory depth cues

Development of depth perception

Current research/future developments


Depth perception is the ability to see in three dimensions and to estimate the spatial distances of objects from oneself and from each other. Without depth perception we would be unable to tell how far objects are from us, and thus how far we would need to move to reach or avoid them.

Our ability to perceive depth includes space perception, or the ability to perceive the differential distances of objects in space. While researchers have discovered much about depth perception, numerous interesting questions remain. For instance, exactly how are we able to perceive the world in three dimensions when the images projected onto the retina are two-dimensional? And how much of a role does learning play in depth perception? While depth perception results primarily from our sense of vision, our sense of hearing also plays a role. Two broad classes of cues used to aid visual depth perception have been distinguished—the monocular (requiring only one eye), and the binocular (requiring both eyes working together).

The following cues require only one eye for their perception. They provide information that helps us estimate spatial distances and to perceive in three dimensions.


Interposition refers to objects appearing to partially block or overlap one another. When an object appears partially blocked by another, the fully visible object is perceived as being nearer, and this generally corresponds to reality.

Shading and lighting

In general, the nearer an object is to a light source, the brighter its surface appears to be, so that with groups of objects, darker objects appear farther away than brighter objects. And in looking at single objects, the farther parts of an object’s surface are from the source of light, the more shadowed and less bright they will appear. Varying shading and lighting then provide information about distances of objects from the source of light, and may serve as a cue to the distance of the object from the observer. In addition, some patterns of lighting and shading seem to provide cues about the shapes of objects.

Aerial perspective

Generally, objects having sharp and clear images appear nearer than objects with blurry or unclear images. This occurs because light is scattered or absorbed over long distances by particles in the atmosphere such as water vapor and dust which to a blurring of objects’ lines. This is why on clear days, very large objects such as mountains or buildings appear closer than when viewed on hazy days.


This cue, sometimes referred to as “height in the plane” or “relative height,” describes how the horizon is seen as vertically higher than the foreground. Thus objects high in the visual field and closer to the horizon line are perceived as being farther away than objects lower in the visual field and farther away from the horizon line. Above the horizon line this relationship is reversed, so that above the horizon, objects that are lower and nearer to the horizon line appear farther away than those up higher and at a greater distance from the horizon line.

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Texture gradients

Textures that vary in complexity and density are a characteristic of most object surfaces and they reflect light differentially. Generally, as distance increases, the size of elements making up surface texture appear smaller and the distance between the elements also appears to decrease with distance. Thus if one is looking at a field of grass, the blades of grass will appear smaller and arranged more closely together as their distance increases. Texture gradients also serve as depth and distance cues in groupings of different objects with different textures in the visual field, as when looking at a view of a city. Finally, abrupt changes in texture usually indicate an alteration in the direction of an object’s surface and its distance from the observer.

Linear perspective

Linear perspective is a depth cue based on the fact that as objects increase in distance from the observer their images on the retina are transformed so that their size and the space separating them decrease until the farthest objects meet at what is called the vanishing point. It is called the vanishing point because it is the point where objects get so small that they are no longer visible. In addition, physically parallel lines such as those seen in railroad tracks are perceived as coming closer together until they meet or converge at the vanishing point.

Motion parallax

Whenever our eyes move (due to eye movement alone, or head, or body movement) in relation to the spatial environment, objects at varying distances move at different rates relative to their position and distance from us. In other words, objects at different distances relative to the observer are perceived as moving at different speeds. Motionparallax refers to these relatively perceived object motions which we use as cues for the perception of distance and motion as we move through the environment.

As a rule, when the eyes move, objects close to the observer seem to move faster than objects farther away. In addition, more distant objects seem to move smaller distances than do nearer objects. Objects that are very far away, such as a bright star or the moon, seem to move at the exact same rate as the observer and in the same direction.

The amount and direction of movement are relative to the observer’s fixation point or where they are focusing. For instance, if you were traveling on a train and focusing on the middle of a large field you were passing, any objects closer to you than your fixation point would seem to be moving opposite to your direction of movement. In addition, those objects beyond your fixation point would appear to be moving in the same direction as you are moving. Motion parallax cues provide strong and precise distance and depth information to the observer.


Accommodation occurs when curvature of the eye lens changes differentially to form sharp retinal images of near and far objects. To focus on far objects the lens becomes relatively flat and to focus on nearer objects the lens becomes more curved. Changes in the lens shape are controlled by the ciliary muscles and it seems that feedback from alterations in ciliary muscle tension may furnish information about object distance.

Retinal size

As an object’s distance from the viewer increases, the size of its image on the retina becomes smaller. And, generally, in the absence of additional visual cues, larger objects are perceived as being closer than are smaller objects.


While not exactly a visual cue for perceiving space or depth as are the previous ones discussed, our familiarity with spatial characteristics of an object such as its size or shape due to experience with the object may contribute to estimates of distance and thus spatial perception. For instance, we know that most cars are taller or higher than children below the age of five, and thus in the absence of other relevant visual cues, a young child seen in front of a car who is taller than the car would be perceived as being closer than the car.

Monocular cues certainly provide a great deal of spatial information, but depth perception also requires binocular functioning of the eyes, that is, both eyes working together in a coordinated fashion. Convergence and retinal disparity are binocular cues to depth perception.


Convergence refers to the eyes’ disposition to rotate inward toward each other in a coordinated manner in order to focus effectively on nearby objects. With objects that are farther away, the eyes must move outward toward one’s temples. For objects further than approximately 20 ft (6 m) away no more changes in convergence occur and the eyes are essentially parallel with each other. It seems that feedback from changes in muscular tension required to cause convergence eye movements may provide information about depth or distance.

Retinal disparity and stereopsis

Retinal disparity refers to the small difference between the images projected on the two retinas when looking at an object or scene. This slight difference or disparity in retinal images serves as a binocular cue for the perception of depth. Retinal disparity is produced in humans (and in most higher vertebrates with two frontally directed eyes) by the separation of the eyes which causes the eyes to have different angles of objects or scenes. It is the foundation of stereoscopic vision.

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Stereoscopic vision refers to the unified three-dimensional view of objects produced when the two different images are fused into one (binocular fusion). We still do not fully understand the mechanisms behind stereopsis but there is evidence that certain cells in some areas of the brain responsible for vision are specifically responsive to the specific type of retinal disparity involving slight horizontal differences in the two retinal images. This indicates that there may be other functionally specific cells in the brain that aid depth perception. In sum, it seems that we use numerous visual depth cues, binocular vision, and functionally specific cells in the nervous system to make accurate depth judgments.

Auditory depth cues are used by everyone who can hear but are especially important for the blind. These include the relative loudness of familiar sounds, the amount of reverberation of sounds as in echoes, and certain characteristics of sounds unique to their frequency. For instance, higher frequency sounds are more easily absorbed by the atmosphere.

A theme running throughout the study of perception in general since the time of the ancient Greeks has been whether perceptual processes are learned (based on past experience) or innate (existent or potential at birth). In terms of depth perception, research using the visual cliff with animals and human infants too young to have had experience with depth perception indicates that humans and various species of animals are born with some innate abilities to perceive depth.

The visual cliff is one the most commonly used methods of assessing depth perception. It is an apparatus made up of a large box with a clear or see-through panel on top. One side of the box has a patterned surface placed immediately under the clear surface, and the other side has the same patterned surface placed at some distance below the clear surface. This latter side gives the appearance of a sharp drop-off or cliff. The subject of the study will be placed on the glass and consistent movement toward the shallow side is seen as an indication of depth perception ability. Newborn infants who cannot crawl commonly show much distress when placed face down over the “cliff” side.


Accommodation— Changes in the curvature of the eye lens to form sharp retinal images of near and far objects.

Aerial-perspective— A monocular visual cue referring to how objects with sharp and clear images appear nearer than objects with blurry or unclear images.

Binocular cues— Visual cues that require the coordinated use of both eyes.

Convergence— The tendency of the eyes to rotate toward each other in a coordinated manner in order to focus effectively on nearby objects.

Elevation— A monocular visual cue referring to an object’s placement in relation to the horizon.

Interposition— A monocular cue referring to how when objects appear to partially block or overlap with each other, the fully visible object is perceived as being nearer.

Linear perspective— A monocular depth cue involving the apparent convergence of parallel lines in the distance, as well as the perceived decrease in the size of objects and the space between them with increasing distance from the observer.

Monocular cues— Visual cues that one eye alone can perceive.

Motion parallax— The perception of objects moving at different speeds relative to their distance from the observer.

Retina— An extremely light-sensitive layer of cells at the back part of the eyeball. Images formed by the lens on the retina are carried to the brain by the optic nerve.

Stereoscopic vision— The unified three-dimensional view of objects produced when the two slightly different images of objects on the two retinas are fused into one.

Texture gradient— A monocular visual cue referring to how changes in an object’s perceived surface texture indicate distance from the observer and changes in direction of the object.

Research with animals raised without opportunities to see (for example if reared in the dark) sustain long-lasting deficits in their perceptual abilities. Indeed, such deprivation may even affect the weight and biochemistry of their brains. This research indicates that while humans and some animal species have innate mechanisms for depth perception, these innate abilities require visual experience in order to develop and become fully functioning. This research also suggests that animals and humans may have developmentally sensitive periods in which visual experience is necessary or permanent perceptual deficits may occur.

In sum, while environmental cues, binocular vision, and physiological aspects of the nervous system can account for many aspects of depth perception, numerous questions remain. Advances in understanding the physiological basis of vision have been great since the 1950s and this has greatly influenced research and theorizing in perception in general, and depth perception in particular. Researchers are eagerly looking at the structure of the nervous system to see if it might explain further aspects of depth perception. In particular, researchers continue to explore the possibility that additional fine tuned detector cells may exist that respond to specific visual stimuli. Finally, some psychologists have begun using certain basic principles of associative learning theory to explain a number of well known yet poorly understood elements of perceptual learning. Both of these approaches show great potential for furthering our understanding of many processes in perception.


Goldstein, E. Bruce. Sensation and Perception. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2006.

Snowden, Robert, et al. Basic Vision: An Introduction to Visual Perception. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Wolfe, Jeremy M., et al. Sensation and Perception. Washington, DC: Sinauer Associates, 2005.

Marie Doorey