How do we know it’s safe to step on shadows? And how can we get robots to under­stand the con­cept of shadows, visual stim­u­la­tions in simple pat­terns of light and darkness?

Ennio Min­golla, the new chair of the Depart­ment of Speech Lan­guage Pathology and Audi­ology, explores ques­tions like these in devel­oping math­e­mat­ical algo­rithms to model the neural processes of human vision.

How com­bi­na­tions of pig­ments , sur­face shapes, and illu­mi­na­tion result in what we see remains a fairly baf­fling and fun­da­mental problem,” Min­golla said.

In the past sev­eral years, Min­golla has focused on mod­eling vision for the pur­poses of steering robotic vehi­cles. Under­standing how humans process visual infor­ma­tion, he said, can enable the devel­op­ment of better robotic sys­tems that can reli­ably nav­i­gate the environment.

With his new appoint­ment in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, Min­golla is eager to extend his inter­ests to the devel­op­mental aspects of human vision.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with researchers from Penn­syl­vania State Uni­ver­sity and New York Uni­ver­sity, for example, Min­golla is exploring how the visual pat­terns we’re exposed to as infants affect the devel­op­ment of the visual system.

We can study how the expo­sure to dif­ferent pat­terns shapes the growing child’s aware­ness of their envi­ron­ment,” Min­golla said.

His team maps those pat­terns to com­pu­ta­tional models and then uses the models to answer ques­tions in devel­op­mental psy­chology. These ques­tions include how infants are able to learn to track moving objects with their eyes or search for objects of interest in their world.

All of these appli­ca­tions — from devel­op­mental psy­chology to robotic vehi­cles — require an under­standing of the com­plex neural net­works at play in the vision system. We know that vision, for example, is inti­mately con­nected to the other senses, but how remains a mystery.

When you hear some­thing that is louder in your left ear, you may make an eye move­ment to your left,” Min­golla said. These kinds of obser­va­tions, he said, make it clear that the senses are linked in the brain, but the problem is that we don’t as yet fully under­stand the intricacies.

Luckily we don’t need to under­stand them in order to func­tion; when we walk up to a shadow we don’t need to worry if it will harm us. If we did, life might be sig­nif­i­cantly less effi­cient. But under­standing the human visual system could enable better health inter­ven­tions and new tech­nolo­gies, said Min­golla, who is eager to bring his com­pu­ta­tional exper­tise to clin­ical investigations.