Eye-disrupting goggles claim to improve athletic performance

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 12:53 p.m. MDT

The Vapor Strobes developed by Nike force baseball players to anticipate more acutely. The glasses have multiple settings, allowing athletes to progress and challenge the brain at different levels.

Ken Fall, Deseret News

MURRAY — Dustin Bybee juggles a soccer ball with his feet while wearing some unique — if not bizarre — goggles.

Bybee, who directs the soccer program at the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital or TOSH as it's called, has been using these specialty glasses with selected local and regional soccer players for about the past three years.

Though looking like conventional sunglasses, there's more going on inside the lenses of this device than meets the eye. These Vapor Strobes developed by Nike blink on and off in sync, disrupting visual signals transmitted from the eyes to the brain. Worn only during training, the flashing forces the brain to work harder so that when the goggles are removed, the brain picks up much more information, including an enhanced perception of the athlete's peripheral vision.

With the glasses off, Bybee describes what he sees. "There's no inhibition," he said. "I can see what's going on at all times. My touch is much better. My balance is much better."

The brain simply perceives the ball in motion with a whole new perspective.

"With the glasses on you've taken away pieces of the trajectory. But when you remove the goggles, the ball actually appears to move in slow motion," said Dr. James Walker with TOSH's Sports Performance Training Program. " When it comes off the foot in soccer, you can react much better because you're anticipating where the ball is going and how to intercept it."

On a soccer field near TOSH, the Utah Glory soccer team recently tried out the Vapor Strobes. "It's definitely different," Chandler Grundman said. "In fact, it's shocking at first because you don't know what to expect." 

But after taking the glasses off, players said they could see the motion of the ball in a whole new way. The game perceptually slowed down while unfolding in real time.

"It was suddenly easier without them because you could see and more anticipate the direction of the ball as it comes to you,"  player Erin McMullin said.

Player Caitlin Gomez felt she had a better focus. "You can just tell when the ball is coming and you're ready for it," she said.

And it's not just soccer. In baseball, the strobes force players to anticipate more acutely. Players can even close off one eye, strengthening the nondominant eye.

"If the right eye only is strobing and I'm a baseball hitter and the pitcher is on my left, it's going to force me to turn my head all the way around," Walker said. "That puts my body in a position to use both eyes to focus on the ball."

For Brighton High School hitter Cage Matuszak, the ball appears larger. "It keeps your shoulders in, your head down, and makes you focus on the ball with this right eye instead of having to come out with your shoulders. It keeps you more in sync from going the opposite way," he said.

Players sometimes even see the rotating seams on the ball. According to Tosh performance trainer Michael Everett, "After I took off the glasses that first time, the ball not only looked bigger, but I could actually see the seams rotating as it approached me."

The strobes also work for those who play football and even golf. In basketball, the retrained brain focuses on the point of the rim that's considered that particular athlete's best dunking spot.

Eye, hand, foot and body coordination, athletes in all kinds of sports say they simply see things they've never sensed before. 

The glasses have multiple settings, allowing athletes to progress and challenge the brain at different levels. TOSH is one of only three selected pilot centers in the United States currently testing the strobes.

E-mail: eyeates@desnews.com

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