AP/Keith Srakocic

A Look at the Field of Morphometrics

July 07, 2009 06:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Researchers are studying how the front of cars convey information based on their resemblance to human faces. The study is part of the emerging field of morphometrics, the study of shapes in organisms and objects.

“Faces” of Cars Express Personalites

Researchers at Vienna University in Austria have been studying the shapes of car fronts and how they appear as human faces. According to their 2008 study, “Face to Face: The Perception of Automotive Designs,” nearly one third of test subjects saw human faces in at least 90 percent of cars shown to them, while all subjects, when asked to identify facial features, “marked eyes in 75.2%, a mouth in 62.6%, a nose in 54.3%, and ears in 38.1% of the cases.”

The researchers say that the ability to see faces in inanimate objects is part of a survival instinct. “Over evolutionary time, humans have developed a selective sensitivity to features in the human face that convey information on sex, age, emotions, and intentions,” they wrote. “This ability might not only be applied to our conspecifics nowadays, but also to other living objects (i.e., animals) and even to artificial structures, such as cars.”

The study is an example of morphometrics, the study of form and structure in organisms or objects. While most morphometric studies have been biological or medical, writes The Associated Press, the Vienna researchers are taking morphometrics “in a new direction.”

What Is Morphometrics?

There are several widely used morphometric methods, explains Tim Dickinson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. “Traditional” morphometrics uses linear measurements, angles, areas and occasionally ratios to sample “shape in an ad hoc kind of way that has no necessary connection to the objects being analyzed.”

Geometric morphometrics, which was employed by the Vienna researchers, measures shapes by identifying “landmarks,” specific homologous points on an organism. In measuring cars, the researchers identified landmarks in headlights, grilles, windshields and other parts.

Shapes can also be measured simply by creating outlines around organisms or objects, a process called outline-based morphometrics. The most prominent use of outline-based morphometrics is in Fourier analysis, described by SUNY Stony Brook as “the decomposition of an outline into a weighted sum of sine and cosine functions.”

Stony Brook operates a morphometrics Web site that explains morphometrics through a glossary, and offers software for measuring objects.

History of Morphometrics

Morphometrics has typically been used to compare the evolution or variations of organisms. In one of the earliest examples of morphometrics, biologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson attempted to “quantitatively describe the mechanism of shape” in his 1917 book “On Growth and Form,” writes University of Massachusetts’ biology professor Joe Kunkel.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, writes professors Dean C. Adams, F. James Rohlf and Dennis E. Slice, there was a shift in the field that “emphasized methods that captured the geometry of the morphological structures of interest, and preserved this information throughout the analyses.” This shift, they contend, was a “revolution” in morphometrics that allowed for greater understanding of the subject.

The rise of computers also contributed to morphometrics, allowing for three-dimensional analysis and increasing the sophistication of comparisons. One of the more advanced morphometric programs, the Tomato Analyzer, “aids in morphological research by providing accurate and objective measurements of fruit shape” and is “more efficient for large numbers of subjects and can detect traits that are extremely difficult to quantify manually,” writes ScienceDaily.

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