Virtual Reality Training for Athletes

By Dan Peterson

Continuing with the recent theme of highlighting the research outposts around the world that are doing great work around cognitive training for athletes, we come to Queens’ University of Belfast, where the researchers in the Virtual Reality Lab are doing some very interesting work around using virtual interfaces for elite rugby training.  The technology allows you to see the world through the athlete’s eyes. Via PsychCentral:

Team members from the Ulster Rugby club worked with researchers in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast on a range of virtual training scenarios that test expert players’ perceptual skills.

Lead researcher, Dr. Cathy Craig, is a senior lecturer in visual perception. She has previously collaborated with Adidas and top professional world-class goalkeepers to study perception of curved free-kicks in soccer.

She said: “Immersing players in an interactive virtual reality provides an exciting new way of exploring and understanding human behavior.

“The advantages of this technology are that unlike playing a video game on a normal desktop computer, the rugby player or athlete is totally immersed in a realistic simulated environment. By presenting stereoscopic images in a head mounted display and tracking head movements, the user’s viewpoint is automatically updated giving a 360 degree virtual experience.

“This means that the user becomes totally absorbed in their virtual environment encouraging them to interact as they would in the real world.”

The players are fitted with a ‘backpack’ of sensors and don a helmet-like visor known as a head-mounted display through which a series of 360-degree virtual scenarios are displayed.

Also involved in the project are PhD students Gareth Watson from Queen’s and Sébastien Brault from the M2S lab, University of Rennes 2.

Gareth Watson added: “Our research is concerned with identifying the key events that influence decisions made by players on the pitch. By controlling the events presented to the players, we can see how the visual information available to the participants at any moment in time influences the player’s decision about when and how to act.”

It’s a really interesting concept, and it is cool to see how the technology allows you to inhabit the athlete’s point-of-view, as demonstrated in the video below.  The “backpack” that the athletes have to wear does look unwieldly though, and the technology is definitely going to have to become a lot more seamless for any mass adoption to be possible. Of course, merely seeing what visual information the athlete is receiving doesn’t tell you the whole story, either, as what really separates experts from the rest is what their eyes fixate on, and what they pay attention to. It’s like the difference between seeing and something and noticing something, which is a big one.

This group in Belfast is taking a very different approach from the visual-perceptual training programs the University of Montreal, or Peter Fadde’s temporal occlusion approach to pitch or tennis serve recognition, even though each research effort is striving toward similar goals.  The methods vary across all sorts of different dimensions, from the amount of hardware required, to the degree of abstraction, to the realism of the of the images provided to the athlete.  Over the next several years there will definitely be a winnowing process, and it will be interesting to see which paradigm or combination of paradigms proves most effective.

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One Response to Virtual Reality Training for Athletes

  1. Mark Nation says:

    Hello, I am a reporter for the Denver Post, I was curious if you were aware of any journal articles( peer reviewed, that discuss the theory or science of OCULARMOTOR SKILLS ! Or visual perpetual stimuli skills seen in Elite NFL quarterbacks, that are faster than normal Humans. There is a question as to why in the NFL the least “athletic” quarterbacks such as Payton Manning, and Tom Brady are the most effective. Is it because they have “Rare special” visual perpetual stimuli.

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