Nike Strobe Specs may or may not improve visual-perceptual performance

By Dan Peterson

Limiting the amount of visual and perceptual information that an athlete receives is quickly becoming a new frontier in performance training.  A couple weeks ago we looked at the special anticipatory skills of elite athletes and the way that they are able to use only the most relevant visual information to predict future events.  Now, a new study* out of Duke University’s Visual Cognition lab reports the results of an experiment in which the effects on visual-perceptual function of Nike’s new Vapor Strobe goggles** were tested on a population of Duke club and varsity athletes across a variety of sports.

The strobe eyeware essentially creates an experience in which the wearer’s world is illuminated by a strobe light.  The goggle’s lenses alternate between clear and opaque a set number of times per second, which effectively allows only a fraction of the available visual information to be received by the wearer.  See video below.

The study’s results were inconclusive on the question of whether the strobe goggles actually provided a real training benefit, though anecdotal reports from athletes were positive (the actual, full study cannot be found anywhere online, based on extensive searching, only the PR):

Half of the participants trained with the strobe eyewear and the other half trained with control eyewear that was identical, but with clear lenses. All completed computer tasks that measured visual sensitivity and attention before and after training with the eyewear. The experiments were designed to evaluate whether those who wore the strobe eyewear would improve more after the training than those who wore the control eyewear, said postdoctoral researcher Gregory Appelbaum…

…Because this was a preliminary study, the researchers were unsure what measures would give them the clearest results. They tried several different lengths of exposure to the eyewear, different strobe rates and many physical and computer-based tasks. They found performance improvements in some tests, but not in all of them.

The Duke team measured slight improvements in some tests after only two 25-minute training sessions, and in both elite athletes and non-athletes. In other cases, they found no changes.

The strobe goggles are an interesting product.  In contrast to targeted approaches like the temporal occlusion technique used for baseball and tennis anticipatory training, the strobe goggles create a blanket environment where visual information is limited.  It’s interesting to note that some athletes showed improvement after just two 25-minute sessions.  It implies that one possible use for the strobe goggles might be as a perceptual warm-up tool, like the visual equivalent of swinging a bat with a couple of those weighted donuts in the on-deck circle before heading to the plate.

The focus on eyewear and “Sports Sensory Training” also gets at one of the interesting questions around the perceptual-cognitive system and its trainability.  The visual system is often considered the “hardware” of the visual-perceptual system, whereas the cognitive side of things–how the brain actually interprets and acts on visual information–can be considered the software.  There are major questions around which side of things is the correct focus of training.  These are interesting and complex, and will be the subject of a longer discussion tomorrow.

*This was a Nike-funded study, FYI

**For the sake of full disclosure, your humble author did research and consulting work for Nike about vision training about five years back

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