Star pupils

SIMON BORCHARDT, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out more about the Mobile Eye device.

James O’Connor is a prolific tweeter and it was through the social network website that he heard about the Mobile Eye, a device that is being used by the Sports Technology Research Unit (STRU) at Stellenbosch University to help goal-kickers.

‘He replied to my tweet and said he was keen to try it out,’ recalls sports vision trainer Grant van Velden. ‘When he was in Cape Town [with the Force] we met at Hamilton Rugby Club and he practised his kicks at goal while wearing the device. He really enjoyed the session and said he’d never seen his goal-kicking from that perspective. He suggested we get hold of [Reds flyhalf] Quade Cooper via Twitter and we had a session with him at Newlands. He was just as impressed.’

The Mobile Eye was developed in the UK by what was then the Defence Research Agency (DRA), now Qinetiq. An American-based company, Applied Science Laboratories, worked with the DRA on the project and subsequently bought the rights to manufacture and market it worldwide. Stellenbosch University bought the device in September 2010 for around R250 000 and the STRU is breaking new ground by applying it to rugby. (Interestingly, it is not only used for sport. The marketing industry, for instance, has used it to find out what parts of an advertising billboard people look at first.)

The Mobile Eye has two cameras based on a pair of glasses. The scene camera records the environment that the player sees (like the rugby ball and posts), while the eye camera records the actual eye movements by tracking the movements of the pupil. The Mobile Eye software then overlays the movements of the eye in relation to the scene that the athlete is viewing, which allows you to see exactly where the athlete is looking while performing tasks such as kicking for posts.

‘A sportsman has to get the best information from any sporting situation and a lot of that is visual information,’ explains Gareth Paterson, a PhD student in sport who is specialising in the Mobile Eye for research. ‘We want to find out what the important parts of the environment are that experts are looking at to base decisions on in a performance skill like goal-kicking. How long are they looking at those areas for? When are they looking at those areas? Does it change when they are under pressure or fatigued?

‘We’ve discovered that when there’s pressure, the attentional focus of goal-kickers narrows and they become more erratic in terms of jumping between different visual areas, which also causes them to get distracted by unnecessary visual information. They have less efficient search strategies and don’t get the best information from their environment.’

Visual sports situations are broken up into three subcategories – targeting or aiming tasks (such as kicking for posts in rugby, or putting in golf), interceptive tasks (like receiving a ball in rugby, or catching a ball in cricket) and tactical tasks (such as reading defensive or attacking structures in rugby).

‘For a targeting task like goal-kicking, we want to find out what the top kickers’ visual strategies are, so that they have the best chance of making a successful kick at goal,’ says Paterson. ‘If we know what the most efficient visual strategy is in successful kickers, we can teach it to goal-kickers from a young age so that they have a better chance of reaching an elite level of kicking early in their careers, and are taught how to handle pressure and resist the temptation to become more erratic in their visual search strategy.’

John Cockcroft, a sports technology engineer and manager of the STRU, says  modern technology is opening up new avenues for research.

‘Take the Mobile Eye device – it’s been around for a long time, but it’s gone from being a huge contraption that you’d put on your face, to the portable, wireless system   we have today. Because it’s getting smaller and the wires are disappearing, we can now go on to the field instead of having to conduct tests in a lab. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have dreamt of having a device like this, but the funny thing is that the glasses we have now will be old school in a couple of years’ time.

‘It’s moving so fast now, like with cellphones. We’ve just heard that the Mobile Eye’s Data Recording Unit, which is currently attached to the player by a belt, will soon be incorporated into the glasses, so a kicker won’t have to wear anything on his back.’

However, the current Data Recording Unit, which looks like a mini-computer, is still small enough not to affect the kicker.

‘When James used the device we wanted to find out if it influenced his kicking and if he was consistently thinking about the fact that it would mess up his kicking,’ says Van Velden. ‘He told us he was conscious of it for the first five minutes or so but then forgot about it.’

Having used the Mobile Eye to assist goal-kickers, the STRU is now looking at other areas of the game where it could help to improve performance. Maties hookers recently started wearing the device during lineout throwing (coach Chean Roux is excited about the role technology can play in improving his team’s performance), while it could be used in more dynamic situations where the visual information is constantly changing (like on a backline player to see who he is marking in a defence drill).

Cockcroft hopes coaches won’t feel threatened by technology, as he insists it will never replace them.

‘They should see it as a tool to help them do their job more effectively. It doesn’t help to have the device if you don’t have quality people around it and we’re building a team that can do in-depth research so that eventually this kind of technology is accessible commercially to anyone, from professional teams, to clubs and academies. Perhaps a schoolboy could pay to have a session or two with it on.’

Van Velden believes the Mobile Eye could even be used to improve the standard of refereeing.

‘When I do my PhD I want to put these glasses on rugby referees and create simulated rucks and mauls and see where the experts like Jonathan Kaplan and Craig Joubert are looking, where their focal points are. Then we can use it as a training aid for young referees.

‘Stuart Dickinson wouldn’t be able to say that he didn’t see Brad Thorn’s spear tackle on John Smit [in Wellington in 2008], even though a photo showed that he was looking straight at it. Referees could be made accountable for their mistakes.

‘There really are so many things we can do with this device. The possibilities are endless.’

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
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