[visionlist] Sad news of George McConkie's passing

Lester Loschky loschky at ksu.edu
Wed Apr 21 22:54:34 -04 2021

Dear Colleagues,

It is with great sadness that I share the news of George McConkie's passing
on April 17, 2021.  He had been battling Parkinson's disease for over a
decade, and was also battling cancer.  He died at home surrounded by his
family members.

George will be remembered for a long time for his contributions to the
study of reading, visual cognition, and the critical roles played by eye
movements in both.  His career spanned roughly 30 years, from the early
1960s to the mid 2000s.  I was lucky enough to have him as my mentor
towards the end of his career.

In the mid 1970s, George and his graduate student Keith Rayner developed
the gaze-contingent methodology and measures of the perceptual span in
reading, and their results revolutionized our understanding of the
processes of reading.  They showed that readers of English extract
information asymmetrically around the point of fixation, from 8-12 letters
to the right of fixation, and 4-6 to the left, or, more generally, from the
upcoming word to the right.  Further work by George, Keith, and
their colleagues and students, used this methodology to further delineate
precisely what sorts of information the reader is able to pick up from the
to-be-fixated word.

Later, in the 1980s, together with his graduate students David Zola and
Gary Wolverton, George showed that the theory of the visual integrative
buffer could not explain perceptual stability across fixations.  George
first showed that by having people read text written in alternating upper
and lower case letters, and gaze-contingently changing the case of every
letter (e.g., WoRd -> wOrD), each time readers made a saccade. This
complete change of all perceptual information in the text across fixations
did not cause the predicted catastrophic disruption of reading.  Far from
it, readers didn't notice the perceptual changes across fixations at all,
suggesting that rather than perceptual information being carried across
saccades, it was identity information.

In the early 1990s, George then decided to test the same idea with scenes,
by changing pairs of photographs that differed in key details (e.g., in a
photo of two men, swapping their heads).  He made those changes during
viewers' saccades, and asked them to press a button if they noticed any
changes.  To everyone's surprise, many people completely missed the changes
for long periods of time. When George's graduate student John Grimes
presented their results at a Cognitive Science conference in Vancouver, a
low-tech demonstration without eyetracking during the talk caused a great
stir among the audience.  From that work, the phenomenon soon after to be
named "Change Blindness" was born.

George and his graduate student Chris Curry followed that up by developing
the Saccade Target Theory of perceptual stability across saccades.  To test
that theory, when viewers made a saccade towards a target object in a
complex natural scene, they would either move the entire scene image, the
entire scene background, or just the target object, a bit further away in
the direction of the saccade.  They found neither moving the entire scene,
nor the entire background were commonly detected, but that moving only the
saccade target was.  This suggested that the saccade target has a special
status in maintaining visual stability across saccades.

Towards the end of his career, George and his graduate student Shunnan Yang
also caused a stir in the eye movements and reading community by showing
that for a moderate population of relatively short duration fixations, the
recognizability of a fixated word seemed to play no role in determining
readers' fixation durations. They showed that by having people read pages
of text, and occasionally, for a single eye fixation, changing all of the
letters on the page to random letters (among other various manipulations).
They found that for fixations < 200 ms in duration, fixating on a word
composed of random letters had no impact on that fixation's duration.

George also influenced a much larger group of graduate students, post-docs,
and colleagues, around the world, from the US, to Europe, and China. He
played a key role in generating greater interest in using eye movements to
study perceptual and cognitive processes.  George was always a soft spoken,
kind, and patient mentor, colleague, and friend.

George was also an important and caring member of his religious community,
which was always very important to him.  And most importantly to him, he
was a devoted father, grandfather, and great grandfather to a large and
loving family.

George will be sadly missed by all who knew him.


Les Loschky

Lester Loschky
Associate Director, Cognitive and Neurobiological Approaches to Plasticity
Department of Psychological Sciences
416 Bluemont Hall
1114 Mid-Campus Dr North
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS  66506-5302
email: loschky at ksu.edu
research page: https://www.k-state.edu/psych/research/loschkylester.html
lab page: http://www.k-state.edu/psych/vcl/index.html
Pronouns: he, him, his
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