Cognitive efforts associated with spatial ability under altered spatial conditions: An eye-tracking study

Open Access
Conference Proceedings
Authors: Faezeh SalehiFatemeh PariafsaiManish Dixit

Abstract: Spatial ability is the ability to generate, store, retrieve, and transform visual information to mentally represent a space and make sense of it. This ability is a critical facet of human cognition that affects knowledge acquisition, productivity, and workplace safety. Although having improved spatial ability is essential for safely navigating and perceiving a space on earth, it is more critical in altered environments of other planets and deep space, which may pose extreme and unfamiliar visuospatial conditions. Such conditions may range from microgravity settings with the misalignment of body and visual axes to a lack of landmark objects that offer spatial cues to perceive size, distance, and speed. These altered visuospatial conditions may pose challenges to human spatial cognitive processing, which assists humans in locating objects in space, perceiving them visually, and comprehending spatial relationships between the objects and surroundings. The main goal of this paper is to examine if eye-tracking data of gaze pattern can indicate whether such altered conditions may demand more mental efforts and attention. The key dimensions of spatial ability (i.e., spatial visualization, spatial relations, and spatial orientation) are examined under the three simulated conditions: (1) aligned body and visual axes (control group); (2) statically misaligned body and visual axes (experiment group I); and dynamically misaligned body and visual axes (experiment group II). The three conditions were simulated in Virtual Reality (VR) using Unity 3D game engine. Participants were recruited from Texas A&M University student population who wore HTC VIVE Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) equipped with eye-tracking technology to work on three spatial tests to measure spatial visualization, orientation, and relations. The Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT: R), the Mental Cutting Test (MCT), and the Perspective Taking Ability (PTA) test were used to evaluate the spatial visualization, spatial relations, and spatial orientation of 78 participants, respectively. For each test, gaze data was collected through Tobii eye-tracker integrated in the HTC Vive HMDs. Quick eye movements, known as saccades, were identified by analyzing raw eye-tracking data using the rate of change of gaze position over time as a measure of mental effort. The results showed that the mean number of saccades in MCT and PSVT: R tests was statistically larger in experiment group II than in the control group or experiment group I. However, PTA test data did not meet the required assumptions to compare the mean number of saccades in the three groups. The results suggest that spatial relations and visualization may require more mental effort under dynamically misaligned idiotropic and visual axes than aligned or statically misaligned idiotropic and visual axes. However, the data could not reveal whether spatial orientation requires more/less mental effort under aligned, statically misaligned, and dynamically misaligned idiotropic and visual axes. The results of this study are important to understand how altered visuospatial conditions impact spatial cognition and how simulation- or game-based training tools can be developed to train people in adapting to extreme or altered work environments and working more productively and safely.

Keywords: Spatial ability, spatial cognition, Virtual Reality, Eye-tracking, Gaze pattern, Saccades

DOI: 10.54941/ahfe1004480

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