Judging Size and Distance of Unidentified Objects

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
In a recent interview with Lex Fridman, pilot David Fravor was asked about how he judged the size and distance of unknown objects (in the context of some ideas I'd suggested around his account of an encounter with a UFO). His response was somewhat light on details.

(Note: an F/A-18 hornet is 56 feet long, not 40)

My (very loose) idea regarding Fravor's encounter with a featureless Tic-Tac shaped object is basically that it was a smaller object that was closer than he thought. The main reason for suggesting this is his account of how it perfectly "mirrored" his actions -as if it knew what he was going to do. When he went down, it came up. When he went around in a circle, it went round 180° opposite him. When he flew towards it, it flew towards him. At least that's how it SEEMED.

So the idea is that, at least in the "mirroring" portion of events, Fravor was approximately doubling the size and distance estimates. When he thought it was on the other side of a circle, it was actually in the middle. When he though he was flying towards something a mile away, it was already half a mile away, and so would seem to accelerate towards him.

Hence the question: "[is it] possible that you miscalculated the size and the distance of the thing and so on when you were flying around?"

Fravor's answer is no, because of his vast experience he's 99.9% sure he did not misidentify it. But he did not give many details as to HOW he estimated the size and distance. The only substantive thing was that it was "40 feet [long] ... about hornet size." But that's a somewhat circular explanation. To know it was "about hornet size" you would have to know how far away it was. On a simple level something 20 feet long that's 10,000 feet away from you will look the same as something that's 40 feet long and 20,000 feet away.

So I mentioned this in my reaction video. But in the comments someone took issue with this, saying:

I replied
And he responded:
I think we've agreed that stereo vision (using two eyes) is not going to help (certainly not with things more than 10,000 feet). If I look at a plane directly above me (at, say 30,000 feet), the edges look the same sharpness when it's at 30° above the horizon (so 60,000 feet away)

The clarity of details is not going to be measurably detectable for 10,000 - 20,000 feet.

"Complexity of reflections" makes no sense to me. So I'll await an example.

"Movement" is somewhat plausible. If you can move your head, you can get a sense of distance for nearby static objects relative to other static objects. But if the object is moving (and you don't know HOW it is moving) and you are also moving, then head motion is not likely to help with something 10-20,000 feet away.

An experiment would be great. But I don't have the means to do it at a sufficient scale. But it sounds like the type of things that people would have looked into before.
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
Does anyone (hopefully we have a trained military pilot amongst us) know if military pilots typically receive formal training on judging size and distance in the air? If it’s taught anywhere, it must be taught at the Navy’s SFTI program (TOPGUN), from which David Fravor graduated, but I poked around online and couldn’t find mention of it. If it’s taught, I’d love to know the process.
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
(Sorry for the follow-up comment, I’m new here)

Mr. Fravor has never mentioned it that I know of but it’s worth considering that he might have been able to judge the size of the object if he had seen its shadow on the water’s surface. According to a New York Times article in 2017, Fravor first estimated the object’s altitude at 50 feet above the water’s surface. If that’s true, the shadow should’ve been very apparent.
 

Trailblazer

Moderator
Staff member
And he responded:
[...]
After reading this I can add to my list. You can judge depth (even with one eye) because of:
- movement - yours and the objects
- clarity of any details (even a perfect sphere would have a sharp edge against the sky which would blur as it gets further away)
- complexity of reflections (I’ll try and find an example. I’m a graphic designer so I just know from work I’ve don’t that when I’m rendering a larger object I need to create more reflections)
- having two eyes (though I agree, that’s no longer a factor with large distances)
- personal experience as a human being with eyeballs. (I’ve never had an issue judging the distance of an object. Even with one eye closed. If I can’t immediately tell how far away it is, I can move my head one inch to the left and I know. If it’s close, the parallax will be larger. If it’s far, there will be little parallax).
I have virtually no stereo vision* - I have two eyes, but the sight in one is fairly poor to the extent that my brain apparently discards the information from that eye, so I don't see in three dimension.

The points about non-stereoscopic depth cues are valid: I can drive and park a car, catch a ball, play squash, pick up an object and all those other things that require you to judge distances, with no problem. But surely the point about parallax is also only valid for nearby objects? If the separation of your eyes is only going to give noticeable parallax for nearby objects, then moving your head an inch (or even a foot or two) to the side is not going to help with judging whether an object is half a mile away or a mile away. In both cases the parallax will be essentially zero.

As for an experiment, you would need two identical but very differently sized objects and a means to suspend them well away from other objects. That would be tricky. On a much smaller scale, you could do it with a regular tennis ball and one of those giant tennis balls. I'd be interested to know whether I could reliably tell them apart without moving my head!


* I say "virtually no" because bizarrely, I can see 3D movies that use the polarising glasses. I don't really understand why this would be - and it's quite a disconcerting effect seeing a movie in 3D when the real world doesn't look like that!
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
The points about non-stereoscopic depth cues are valid: I can drive and park a car, catch a ball, play squash, pick up an object and all those other things that require you to judge distances, with no problem.
I think there your brain incorporates the known size and expected distances and 3D configuration of things into its interpretation of what it sees. It also improves over time to compensate for the lack of stereo. I can juggle with one eye closed and pick up objects on my desk in front of me, but it's a bit off.

With juggling, there's an expectation of where the ball will be, and the visual size of the ball seems to help.

If the separation of your eyes is only going to give noticeable parallax for nearby objects, then moving your head an inch (or even a foot or two) to the side is not going to help with judging whether an object is half a mile away or a mile away. In both cases the parallax will be essentially zero.
True, and parallax is only useful if there's something to compare it against.

There's some trees outside my window , in my yard, and across the street, here's the view right now. Moving the camera about 2 feet left and right.
https://www.metabunk.org/data/video/40/40906-76ff1034255d2735f704a54d14073db0.mp4

Obviously you can tell there's some relative difference, but it gets harder and harder the further away things are. If we think specifically about the Fravor incident, he's looking down at an object of unknown size from 3.78 miles up (and not a vertical angle, so more like 4-5 miles distant), and thinks it's near sea level. How?

The only conceivable explanation is from the motion of his own plane. He's zipping along at 200+ mph. If the object were at sea level then it would appear fixed against the background of the water. However, you also have to account for the motion of the object itself. And there are various descriptions of erratic motion. Still, it would seem to make sense that if you could tell something was at sea level, then you'd have a better idea of how big it is.

As for an experiment, you would need two identical but very differently sized objects and a means to suspend them well away from other objects. That would be tricky. On a much smaller scale, you could do it with a regular tennis ball and one of those giant tennis balls. I'd be interested to know whether I could reliably tell them apart without moving my head!
Do you have any two objects that are identical but different sizes? Interestingly as I mentally go through the 10,000 items in my house I can't really find any. There's a really strong mental expectation of how big something is based on what you think it is - and since things are generally visually unique, then you have a head start.

What would be a good set of objects, I wonder? Something where there would be near zero visual cues? Giant tennis balls sounds good, but looks like there's visual differences . The giant ball here has a flatter surface around the seams.
Metabunk 2020-09-11 07-27-59.jpg

I wonder if there are sets of magic trick balls or educational balls?
 

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deirdre

Senior Member.
you could roll up paperballs. my cat has various paperball sizes around the house. or even sheets of paper... just cut one smaller although how you would get a single sheet stationary at distance against he sky i dont know. if you get your camera just right you could put a full sheet on a skylight and a small 2x5 sheet on a glass piece from a photo frame... and just crop out whatever holds the frame up. ??
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
this is weird. i have a long folding desk table so taped teh balls up with white thread. the small ball (in real life) that is closet to me cast a shadow... so it really looks like the near small ball is big and in the back. unless shadows dont work that way.. should have turned off the flash i guess. .

anyway the small ball in this pic is about 3x larger than the other in real life. and is hanging from the back end of my long table.


1599837551651.png
 

jarlrmai

Active Member
I think the best way try it out would be a VR 3D computer simulation you can have stereoscopic effects/movement/parallax/atmospheric effects, you can control the distances/sizes and make the object texturally identical.

The problem with any photographic demonstration is that it will lack many of the cues we use to determine size/distance.

I also found this article

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ar...al cues,cues derived from retinal information.

It's possible the default assumption for a jet pilot is that everything they see flying around that they can't immediately identify is around the same size as a fighter jet, one because other fighter jets is what they care about and two because the jet becomes an extension of their own body.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
So I ran an experiment on Twitter:
Source: https://twitter.com/MickWest/status/1304454429916057602


Results:

Can't tell:
  1. to compare with eyesight, stereoscopic image would be required
  2. Its a still. It’s a different story when you get to move the camera and circle around it , surely.
  3. As far as I can tell, there's no visual clue as to which is larger.
  4. Yes, you took all depth perception cues away there.
  5. I'd say that the "left wheel" is furthest away, it appears to be more in focus, the right wheel seems to me most out of focus & appear to be as "blurry" as the wooden frame it "appears" to be connected to(assumption), hence it appears to be closer & in the same distance/focus. The focus difference might also be pure illusion because of the different construct of the wheels. I'd say I cant tell.
  6. Look Both the same to me
  7. It's hard to tell , I need to view it from multiple vantage points.

RIGHT is far away and bigger (so lerft is closest and smallest)
  1. I’d say the right wheel is further away. There seems to be depth to it.
  2. If they are diff I’d say the one on the right is bigger. It has a highlight on the inner wheel & is also lower in the frame, two ‘natural’ indicators of the position but the reverse could apply.
  3. Fun challenge! Haven't examined carefully, but I would guess right, because the bearings connected to the wheel appear larger & better-reinforced, hinting at more mass. Furthermore, there seems to be a little more ambient occlusion & slightly less sharpness. Low confidence though
  4. I'd say the right is farther. The fronts of the boards are shadowed, as is the center of the left disk, so I'm guessing they're illuminated at about the same angle.
  5. I’d say the right wheel is further away. There seems to be depth to it.
  6. The one on the right is further. Posting this before reading comments to test me assumption. Took me a couple of looks but I’m fairly confident it’s that one. And because the thing that’s holding it look longer and thinner maybe? But a, the bar holding it indicates to me that it’s farther
  7. This is bait, but i play the right one looks further away. The paint and the cog wheel at the top looks clearer to me visually on the left, reason i picked right further away.
  8. Right seems bigger but only after staring at it for a while, as a still image.
  9. One on the right appears bigger since the lower portion of the wheel seems to dip below the wood further than the left. If that makes sense.
  10. i am 60% sure it’s the right one, because it looks like it’s aligned with the fence differently, as though it’s pressed against it
  11. Total guess...The right one? Shadows may be exposing it?...Cool experiment Mick!
  12. Right is bigger.
  13. Right one. Just because it looks like it is. Can't explain why.
  14. The one further back looks like on the right, but confidence is 80% only.
  15. Right
  16. I say right is bigger and farther away. Something about the lighting and shadows makes me feel that its farther away. About 70% sure.
  17. Right clearly looks further away due to the bottom edge being visible
LEFT is far away and bigger (so right is closest and smallest)
  1. Left one is farther... more shadow on it says it’s closer to fence.
  2. Right is closest. They appear to be attached to the underside of an upturned trolley. The shadow on the lefthand wheel shows that the inner part is hollowed out, in the opposite orientation to the righthand wheel on which you can see a bulge outwards.
  3. The one on the right is closer, as I thing I can see a bigger image of the photo taker
  4. The one on the right is closer. You can tell by comparing the two reflections
  5. Left bigger. Not at all confident because I’m seeing this on Twitter. Irl I’d be surprised if it wasn’t
  6. Right one is closer
  7. One on the left is further away, and therefore bigger.
  8. Left is bigger, right is closer. Confident? Not really but I have poor depth perception so maybe I have a leg up
  9. Left
  10. I say left bigger... 80.4% sure!
  11. Right?
  12. The one on the right looks closer...cause it seems closer to the spoke relative to the one on the left...but I'm stupid.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
And the correct answer to "Which one is big and far away, left or right?" is LEFT



So we had
Right: 17/36. (47%)
Left: 12/36 (33%)
Can't tell 7/36 (19%)

I think the correct answer is that you can't tell. Most of the rationales given for "left" were wrong in themselves. There was really no way of knowing from a static image.

And I think in the broader context, it shows that if you don't know how big something is, then parallax is the only information that's useful.
 
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Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
And I think in the broader context, it shows that if you don't know how big something is, then parallax is the only information that's useful.

An exception might be haze. Object at 2 miles vs. object at 4 miles could obviously look different in some atmospheric conditions, and that's not a factor here. But that really only works if you have some similar object at a known distance to compare it against.
 

NoParty

Senior Member.
Fravor: "I...know what stuff looks like."
I cringed when I read that. I presume he believes that...but I don't find it persuasive.

What would be a good set of objects, I wonder?
Some sets of screwdrivers have similar size handles, but I know I've had sets where
each unit just looked a bit smaller than the last. Wrenches, too. I'd check the toolbox, first.
If they worked, there'd be the bonus of lots of increments to play with...

Maybe toy cars?
 

Mechanik

Active Member
This is all about how your brain interprets what your eyes are seeing. I had decided that, as far as the wheels were concerned, there was no difference. However, I picked right for one of the Twitter reasons listed, trying to look for clues other than the wheels themselves. After I read that the left was larger, i scrolled back up to look at the original, and it was instantly obvious that it was larger. Much to my surprise, after maybe 2 seconds, they went back to being the same size.

Once my brain knew the left wheel was larger, it confirmed it when I looked, but then my eyes took control and let my brain know it was full of dung, then they were, once again, the same size.

An entertaining way to explore this brain/eye phenomenon is to watch the series “Brain Games” featuring illusionist Apollo Robbins in many episodes. What your brain sees is not necessarily accurate.
 

NoParty

Senior Member.
This is all about how your brain interprets what your eyes are seeing. I had decided that, as far as the wheels were concerned, there was no difference. However, I picked right for one of the Twitter reasons listed, trying to look for clues other than the wheels themselves. After I read that the left was larger, i scrolled back up to look at the original, and it was instantly obvious that it was larger. Much to my surprise, after maybe 2 seconds, they went back to being the same size.

Once my brain knew the left wheel was larger, it confirmed it when I looked, but then my eyes took control and let my brain know it was full of dung, then they were, once again, the same size.

An entertaining way to explore this brain/eye phenomenon is to watch the series “Brain Games” featuring illusionist Apollo Robbins in many episodes. What your brain sees is not necessarily accurate.
Brain Games can be fascinating. I had always thought of our significant capacity to be fooled
by our senses as a very negative thing, but the show kind of got me to think that exaggerating
threats was a big help in our survival, in the past. (These days I'm still annoyed by people grossly exaggerating a threat, but not as much). But, more on topic with the thread, BG is great at
demonstrating how much we rely on visual cues that we don't necessarily consciously notice...
 

Agent K

Active Member
And I think in the broader context, it shows that if you don't know how big something is, then parallax is the only information that's useful.

Even with parallax, how do you tell whether the object is in the center of your orbit or "mirroring" you opposite the center? Try that experiment.

I thought of this when I was watching David Blaine's recent balloon flight. In the video from the helicopter, he appears to fly left to right, but the self-shot video shows that he's just slowly ascending while the helicopter is orbiting him.
Source: https://youtu.be/QwzvNAAqH3g?t=8647
 
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Agent K

Active Member
Some sets of screwdrivers have similar size handles, but I know I've had sets where
each unit just looked a bit smaller than the last. Wrenches, too. I'd check the toolbox, first.
If they worked, there'd be the bonus of lots of increments to play with...

Maybe toy cars?

Matryoshka dolls
 

Agent K

Active Member
Even with parallax, how do you tell whether the object is in the center of your orbit or "mirroring" you opposite the center? Try that experiment.

Did Fravor say whether he thought that Go Fast was actually going fast? If so, then perhaps he made the same mistake during his tic tac chase.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Did Fravor say whether he thought that Go Fast was actually going fast? If so, then perhaps he made the same mistake during his tic tac chase.
As far as I know, all he's said about it is that it's not a bird, because a bird would be dead if it appeared cooler than the water in IR.

Which is A) wrong, B) not the actual leading hypotheses for GoFast, C) Ignoring that TTSA, etc, claim it's going fast.
 

Agent K

Active Member
I thought of this when I was watching David Blaine's recent balloon flight. In the video from the helicopter, he appears to fly left to right, but the self-shot video shows that he's just slowly ascending while the helicopter is orbiting him.

Speaking of David Blaine and illusions, another illusion is when he opens the parachute, he appears to fly up when he actually just decelerates while the camera continues to tilt downward.
Source: https://youtu.be/QwzvNAAqH3g?t=9983

It's sort of the opposite of what happens in the FLIR video, where the object keeps moving but the camera suddenly stops tracking it. Here, Blaine slows down but the camera continues tilting.
 

NoUsername

New Member
As far as I know, all he's said about it is that it's not a bird, because a bird would be dead if it appeared cooler than the water in IR.

Which is A) wrong, B) not the actual leading hypotheses for GoFast, C) Ignoring that TTSA, etc, claim it's going fast.
Screenshot 2020-09-13 111255.png
At 6:11 in the Joe Rogan Interview
Fravor: It's screaming across the ocean at a very high rate of speed and there's been some debunkers that say well it's really not going that fast, it's just the way the airplane is and how the mechanics of the pod work. When you talk to the crew because it's actually I could ask my bud, I'm pretty sure it's the same backseater that took both of these videos. Took the Go-Fast video and took the Gimble video and my buddy was on the flight with the gimble video. But these things so I call my buddies, I'm like hey how many people are seeing these things. Like 60 or 70, 60 or 70 people had seen these things on radar.

It appears that he does believe that the Go Fast video is indeed going fast and that it's not some kind of parallax illusion on the camera.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
It appears that he does believe that the Go Fast video is indeed going fast
Yeah, unfortunately, he does not explain WHY he thinks that, other than a very vague start of an appeal to authority that goes nowhere ("When you talk to the crew ...")
 

Amber Robot

Active Member
I cringed when I read that. I presume he believes that...but I don't find it persuasive.

In fact, sometimes an expert is *more* likely to get something wrong if they rely too strongly on their expertise. Experts can still be wrong and get fooled by unusual phenomena.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member


What is moving here? Tic-Tac, Camera, Both, or can you even tell?
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
You can’t tell. Unless of course you had speed, heading, altitude and AoA indicators. As a pilot would.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member


How about this? Object moving over the water? Camera moving? Both? Can't tell?
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
EDIT: removed duplicate text.
Well the pilots did in GOFAST, but they (and everyone else) still seemed to get it wrong.

I could be wrong, (Please correct next if I am) but I don’t think the GO FAST video pilot was ever identified, nor did he give an anonymous account of the sighting. I also don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest he saw the object with his own eyes. He used the FLIR for a lock.
I’m not sure it’s fair to say they (the pilots) got it wrong when they’ve never spoken in their own defense. And what do you mean by everyone got it wrong?
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
And what do you mean by everyone got it wrong?
TTSA, Fravor, the media, the two "experts" on Unidentified, Tom DeLonge, the New York Times.

I think the title of the video "GO FAST" very likely indicates that it's a training video, used precisely because it gives this strong illusion of speed. The audio on the video seems to indicate the pilots fell for that illusion.
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
TTSA, Fravor, the media, the two "experts" on Unidentified, Tom DeLonge, the New York Times.

I think the title of the video "GO FAST" very likely indicates that it's a training video, used precisely because it gives this strong illusion of speed. The audio on the video seems to indicate the pilots fell for that illusion.
That’s interesting. You think it’s titled GO FAST because the object isn’t going fast (but appears to be). It might also be reasonable to think it could be titled GO FAST because the object is going fast. Much like one might assume the GIMBAL video is titled GIMBAL because it does demonstrate the disorienting effect of the gimbal on a FLIR pod image.
 

Woolery

Banned
Banned
Woolery said:
because the object is going fast.
But it isn't.”

By quoting only a fragment and removing context from my sentence you created a straw man argument. My comment related directly and exclusively to the title of the video. You used another rhetorical device (hyperbole) to bolster your previous claim:
“Well the pilots did in GOFAST, but they (and everyone else) still seemed to get it wrong”

Given that so many of us look to you for objective analysis in a confusing time, I would caution you to avoid these devices.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
By quoting only a fragment and removing context from my sentence you created a straw man argument. My comment related directly and exclusively to the title of the video.
Your point was "It might also be reasonable to think it could be titled GO FAST because the object is going fast. "

But it isn't going fast, so that's not reasonable.
 
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