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Firm or Fluffy: EU Millions for the Riddles of Material Perception

JLU perception psychologist Prof. Roland W. Fleming receives his second ERC grant

Deutsche Fassung

No 46 • 30 March 2023

How does the perception of different material properties work? Photo: Roland W. Fleming
How does the perception of different material properties work? Photo: Roland W. Fleming 

To determine whether objects are rough or smooth, hard or soft, wet or dry, we don't have to touch them—usually a glance is enough. The question of how the brain infers such object properties from the light patterns on our retina is occupying the attention of perception researcher Prof. Dr. Roland W. Fleming from Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU). In order to unravel the mystery of material perception, the European Research Council (ERC) is funding Prof. Fleming for the second time with one of the coveted ERC grants. In 2016, he already received an ERC Consolidator Grant; for his current research project STUFF (Seeing Stuff: Perceiving Materials and their Properties), he will be awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euros for the next five years. 

"The look and feel of surfaces is of enormous importance for our everyday lives. It helps us, for example, to find out whether the ground is safe or food is fresh," explains Prof. Fleming. In his new project, he wants to investigate how we perceive, interpret and interact with objects and materials. In doing so, he wants to reveal the underlying processes in the brain. 

Material perception is also responsible for a large part of the aesthetic pleasure of seeing: "The glitter of diamonds, the shine of car paint, or sculpture that creates the amazing illusion of a delicately draped fabric in marble—all this is material perception," explains Prof. Fleming.  The findings from the project will help product designers and the developers of tools for the digital creative industries to adapt their algorithms to human perception.

The project will also use technology developed in Prof Fleming's lab to measure how people grasp and interact with objects. The system uses artificial intelligence to reconstruct detailed models of people's hands as they pick up and manipulate objects. The aim is to investigate what effects the physical properties of the objects have. It is conceivable that the knowledge gained from this could be used in the long term for the rehabilitation of stroke patients who have difficulty performing everyday tasks.

Prof. Fleming's field of research is a core area of the JLU focus area "Mechanisms of Perception and Adaptation", which also plays a leading role internationally. "I am very pleased that the strength and reputation of our perception research has been honoured once again by the European Research Council," emphasised JLU President Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee. "I warmly congratulate Prof. Fleming on this highly deserved award and look forward to further exciting insights into the mysteries of human perception."  

Prof. Dr. Roland W. Fleming. Photo: Lina Klein
Prof. Dr. Roland W. Fleming. Photo: Lina Klein

Prof. Dr. Roland Fleming has been conducting research as Professor of Experimental Psychology at JLU since 2010. Born in England, he studied psychology, philosophy and physiology at Oxford and received his PhD from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 2004. He was then a project leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen. Prof. Fleming was awarded the Justus Liebig University Prize in 2012; the Vision Sciences Society presented him with the Young Investigator Award in 2013.

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