Duke athletes test eye glasses for improvements in vision

By Michael Shammas
June 9, 2011

Strobe effects are no longer just for the dance floor.

A team of Duke psychologists specializing in visual perception and attention has found that modified, strobe-producing eye glasses may help athletes’ brains better process movement. The eyewear’s lenses rapidly flicker between clear and opaque states, producing a strobe-like effect. By training with these glasses, athletes may experience benefits that supplement what they can achieve through normal training.

“It’s all still preliminary,” said Stephen Mitroff, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience who led the research. “We did find significant effects [that show] that vision and attention are altered through this strobe training, suggesting that these abilities can be enhanced and that they are malleable and that this may be an interesting way to go about asking questions about the malleability of perception and attention.”

Nearly 500 people—Duke athletes from the varsity football, men’s basketball and men’s and women’s soccer teams, as well as students on club teams and other undergraduates—participated in the study.

In the study, half of the participants trained while wearing the strobe eyewear, and the other half in the control group trained while wearing eyewear that looked identical but had clear lenses. Those training in the former group exhibited a slightly improved ability in detecting changes in motion and predicting the path of a moving object.

Nike funded the research, which used the company’s Nike Vapor Strobe glasses. The Duke researchers presented their findings May 6 at the Vision Sciences Society in Naples, Florida.

And though Nike gave money to the University for the project, the research was done independently of the company.

“[Nike] was hoping to get out of it at the end that independent research at Duke would say something [good] about their product, but this was no way me testing their product,” Mitroff said. “This was me getting early access to the product in order to test their research.”

Mitroff added that further research is needed to identify the impact of wearing these strobe glasses and noted that it is still uncertain how much the technology actually benefits athletes. If additional experimentation validates the glasses’ efficacy, however, the applications of the technology could extend far beyond the realm of sports.

“Anything where you need to try and pick up information or predict where something is going to be, [strobe effects] could potentially have benefits,” Mitroff said.

Matthew Cain, a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience responsible for designing and analyzing these experiments, also said the results have implications beyond athletics.

“Trying to see what changes occurred that weren’t athletics-specific is important,” Cain said. “We’re looking at [the glasses] as an interesting research tool for figuring out how visual cognition can change and be trained. We’ve also been looking at video games and other things like that in the lab.”

Although the researchers are still trying to understand why the strobe goggles improve vision and attention, they believe they may already have part of the answer.

“Because things are changing, because things are appearing and disappearing rapidly, [the goggles] may be getting people into a very focused mindset, and they may stay in that mindset after taking the goggles off,” Cain said.

Mitroff’s research will continue next year, and Duke athletes will continue to play an essential role.

Junior Stephanie Dudzinki, a club tennis player, said the team will have a chance to experience the glasses next year in another phase of the research.

“[We] are very excited,” she said in an email Saturday. “We have been told that the glasses will function by actually hindering our vision when practicing with them, but after removing them, our vision should be enhanced.”