Nov 032010
 

Courgette flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: net_efekt

Natural products are highly valued by consumers yet their properties have been difficult to reproduce fully in synthetic materials, placing a drain on our limited natural resources. Until now …

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) are working towards producing the world’s first model that will predict how we perceive naturalness. The results could help make synthetic products so good that they are interpreted by our senses as being fully equivalent to the ‘real thing’, but with the benefits of reduced environmental impact and increased durability.

NPL began undertaking a real-time experiment at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. The public were invited to touch and feel 20 wood and wood effect samples and vote on whether they are real or not. The exhibition will now be toured around the UK during the next year to collect a census of data from across the country. This will then be used to help build the first predictive model of how we judge naturalness.

As well as the real-time experiment the travelling exhibition will include a range of interactive exhibits that explore the perceptual process. The first of these will show how we can use body parts to measure an object, as the ancient Egyptians did with the cubit, a standard measure related to the Pharaoh’s arm length. There are visual, tactile and auditory experiments designed to demonstrate the limitations of the senses as measurement devices, by exposing how perceptions can be fooled by illusions. Videos will highlight the how the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans is helping us understand the perceptual process, by allowing researchers to discover which areas of the brain are stimulated when people carry out specific tasks, such as using their vision and touch senses to explore natural and non natural wood samples.

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