Visual control of stable and unstable loads: what is the feedback delay and extent of linear time-invariant control?


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Corresponding author I. D. Loram: Institute for Biomedical Research into Human Movement and Health, Manchester Metropolitan University, John Dalton Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M1 5GD, UK. Email:


Human balance is commonly described using linear-time-invariant (LTI) models. The feedback time delay determines the position of balance in the motor-control hierarchy. The extent of LTI control illuminates the automaticity of the control process. Using non-parametric analysis, we measured the feedback delay, extent of LTI control and visuo-motor transfer function in six randomly disturbed, visuo-manual compensatory tracking tasks analogous to standing with small mechanical perturbations and purely visual information. The delay depended primarily on load order (2nd: 220 ± 30 ms, 1st: 124 ± 20 ms), and secondarily on visual magnification (extent 2nd: 34 ms, 1st: 8 ms) and was unaffected by load stability. LTI control explained 1st order and stable loads relatively well. For unstable (85% passive stabilisation) 2nd order loads, LTI control accounted for 40% of manual output at 0.1 Hz decreasing below 10% as frequency increased through the important 1–3 Hz region where manual power and visuo-motor gain are high. Visual control of unstable 2nd order loads incurs substantial feedback delays and the control process will not be LTI. These features do not result from exclusive use of visual inputs because we found much shorter delays and a greater degree of LTI control when subjects visually controlled a 1st order load. Rather, these results suggest that delay and variability are inevitable when more flexible, intentional mechanisms are required to control 2nd order unstable loads. The high variability of quiet standing, and movement generally, may be indicative of flexible, variable delay, intentional mechanisms rather than the automatic LTI responses usually reported in response to large perturbations.