A key question concerning the perception of 3D objects is the spatial reference frame used by the brain to represent them. The celerity of the recognition process could be explained by the visual system's ability to quickly transform stored models of familiar 3D objects, or by its ability to specify the relationship among viewpoint-invariant features or volumetric primitives that can be used to accomplish a structural description of an image. Alternatively, viewpoint-invariant recognition could be realized by a system endowed with the ability to perform an interpolation between a set of stored 2D templates, created for each experienced viewpoint.
In the present study we set out to examine the nature of object representation in the primate in combined psychophysical-electro-physiological experiments. Monkeys were trained to recognize novel objects from a given viewpoint and subsequently were tested for their ability to generalize recognition for views generated by mathematically rotating the objects around any arbitrary axis.
The perception of 3D novel objects was found to be a function of the object's retinal projection at the time of the recognition encounter. Recognition became increasingly difficult for the monkeys as the stimulus was rotated away from its familiar attitude. The generalization field for novel wire-like and spheroidal objects extended to about ±40° around an experienced viewpoint. When the animals were trained with as few as three views of the object, 120° apart, they could often interpolate recognition for all views resulting from rotations around the same axis.
Recordings from inferotemporal cortex during the psychophysical testing showed a number of neurons with remarkable selectivity for individual views of those objects that the monkey had learned to recognize. Plotting the response of neurons as a function of rotation angle revealed systematic view-tuning curves for rotations in depth. A small percentage of the view-selective cells responded strongly for a particular view and its mirror-symmetrical view. For some of the tested objects, different neurons were found to be tuned to different views of the same object; the peaks of the view-tuning curves were 40–50° apart Neurons were also found that responded to the sight of unfamiliar objects or distractors. Such cells, however, gave nonspecific responses to a variety of other patterns presented while the monkey performed a simple fixation task.