RESEARCH: Virtual Reality’s Influence on Performance

We have a really interesting episode; we’re talking to Dr. David Harris, who does a lot of research in the world of VR. He’s done some research on quiet eye using VR equipment and experimented with using VR as a way to practice. There are some really interesting findings from their study: what they were looking at, and what they were discovering. It’s insightful and relevant in terms of technology and sports, and also something to keep our eyes on for what’s going on within the field of VR and how it can impact us in golf performance and in training.

Dr. David Harris works at the University of Exeter in the UK; he’s a researcher in psychology and is specifically interested in skill acquisition: how people will respond to performance and particularly the use of virtual reality as a way for kind of training skills but also for understanding how people perform particular skills.

Practice: Virtual Reality vs Reality

Cordie Walker: How did you guys get there? What was the premise behind what you were looking at?

Dr. David Harris: We’ve always had our research related to: How do people learn skills? How do we speed up learning? Which is some of the quiet eye stuff you mentioned. We started getting interested in how we can use virtual reality for training different skills. To be honest, it’s probably originated more in other training for other areas. So things like the nuclear industry and places like that, where you often can’t practice something physically, but virtuality is an awesome way of training something that you couldn’t otherwise train things that are dangerous or things that you can’t recreate in the real world. Then being obviously interested in sport as well, we started to look at whether VR is going to kind of transfer over into using it for sport.

Cordie Walker: What was the task or what were you trying to train? Or how did, how did you guys go about the experiment.

Dr. David Harris: So we I’m collaborating with some colleagues up at the university of Leeds. They’ve got a really cool, kind of a massive tech group up there. And then someone built a golf like VR golf simulator. So pretty simple, really just a little putting green, you get a real golf club, you attach a tracking sensor to the head of the golf club. So you are physically swinging something. So you get the same feeling of swinging an actual golf club. Then basically we got a group of people to practice. So total novices came in and they practiced either on our indoor putting green or they practice using this VR golf button. And we’re interested in whether both were effective for training if one was better than the other. I kind of slightly skeptical view was that, you know, virtual golf is never going to be as good as the real thing. Right. And I still like, so ultimately believe that, but there was also got, were actually that for those novices people who were, you know, they might play into a little bit of pitch and put, would you call it, know if you call it the same for those people where it was equally good. So you found that both groups kind of improved to a similar level. So yeah, that was kind of a slight surprise, I guess, but a cool result.

Participant practicing putting with VR.

Walker: Were you surprised that VR did as well as normal training or normal practice? 

Harris: Yes. I mean, we’re going to get down to it. If you want to get better at something, you do that thing. Right. And the thing with sport is you can usually go and do that thing. So, if you’re using virtual reality to train, you know, disposal of nuclear reactive waste, you can’t physically go and do that, but I can go and putt. So you then sort of have to ask yourself the question, why do I want to do it in virtual reality? There are definitely situations where it might be useful. And we start to think about whether you might use virtual reality as a warm-up. So maybe, I don’t know, you’re in your hotel room before you go out and play. Can you just pop on a VR headset, practice a few putts and use that as an effective warm-up.

Walker: Were people in the VR practice mode actually hitting a golf ball or no?  

Harris: They weren’t. So I guess that’s one of the particular things you’d say, well, you’re not getting any of that haptic feedback of the club on the ball. There’s another bit work, a student at Exerter did, where they use the same golf simulation, but one group they strategically placed a real golf ball in the same physical space where the virtual ball here appeared. So when you swing your club, you are getting that same impact and feeling the club hitting the ball, they actually found that was worse than no ball at all. So, what we thought was going on is that actually if there’s any slight mismatch between where the virtual ball is and where the real ball is, that slightly mismatched feedback was worse than no feedback at all, which is kind of cool.

Walker: Yup. What about this idea? So you had novices doing this test, is that right? So very little experience, any insight or any thoughts on more experienced players or players have some experience?

Harris: Yeah. We did run another small study where we got some fairly good golfers came in and they used it as a warm-up. So, they did a bunch of real putts on an indoor green. They then practiced in the virtual golf simulation and then we asked them to go back and putt on the real green and they were worse, much worse, on their first putt back on the real green. So doing the virtual putting was obviously sufficiently different from real putting that actually temporarily messed them up when they came back to the real thing. So we’ve kind of not looked at how VR training might be used more kind of long-term for like higher level golfers, but my kind of feeling is probably, probably not that useful, unless it’s of very specific things.

Walker: Gotcha. Let’s jump to some of the quiet eye stuff that you guys tested. I’m curious because that is obviously a very specific piece of the puzzle. Explain that a little bit; what were you looking to test and how did that study go?

Quiet Eye Results 

Harris: We felt like virtuality is a really cool way of studying things like quiet eye because you can just mess with stuff that you can’t in the real world. So you can mess with the visual information that people are getting, during a putt, you can change where the ball is like mid-putt or anything like that. So what we did in a couple of studies was use some visual cues for where their quiet eye needs to be. Quiet eye is defined by this fixation – a nice, long stable fixation on the ball prior to the initiation of the putting movement. We were interested in making the fixation either longer or shorter by I’m using auditory tones to cue people when to start and stop the fixation. We also got them to use fixations that were not on the ball. So we got them to either look at the ball just above the ball, just behind the ball or actually at the hole while they were passing that, which is like, that’s quite interesting one I think that like Jordan Spieth debate around that and we actually found very little effect of getting people to look either at the ball or close to the ball or whether it was slightly longer, slightly shorter.

Harris: So this is a little bit in conflict with some of the quiet eye literature finding that those slight changes we made didn’t have a massive effect on people’s performance. Again, this was in novices. So you’ve got to take you to the pinch of salt that it might be different for more experienced players. So yeah, it was quite interesting. We kind of felt like that may be indicated that while quiet eye is important for skills like golf putting, but that if it’s long enough and close enough, that might be good enough. So the actual, perhaps some of the really fine parameters about the fixation may be less important than actually the fact that you’re focused. You’re not distracted and actually adopting a quiet eye is a way to do those things. It’s a way of getting you to focus, but actually the real specific parameters where the fixation is maybe maybe are less important.

Walker: Interesting. So no real change, depending on if someone’s looking at the ball or a mid point or at the hole.


Additional Study: How does Quiet Eye effect Visualization?

Walker: Do you have a followup test or any other kind of additional study you want to do around that?

Harris : We did just one where they were putting in virtuality, they kind of set up for the putt, like normal. They get a really brief window to look where the hole is and just kind of get themselves ready. Then we occlude all their visual information, so it’s a little bit like imagine having a white sphere wrapped around your head. We’re interested in, do people continue to make that quiet eye fixation when they can’t see anything? We found that they did. So people continue to make just as long, a quite eye fixation when there was nothing to see, which is quite interesting. I might suggest that this may be linked to some more processes to do with you focusing and preparing for the shot rather than actually getting any like visual information, you know where the golf ball is roughly, right. You know, where the hole is roughly. What you’re doing with your eyes in those final moments before your putt is maybe not about getting more visual information, it’s maybe about preparing you mentally for that shot or that’s what we thought anyway.

Walker: Yeah, I think one theory on quiet eye that I’ve heard is that the concept of quiet eye is more just to quiet the brain a little bit and maybe achieve some of that before it could be one of the main goals more than just quieting of the eyes kind of concept.

Harris : Yeah. I think that definitely fits with the results we got. Yeah. It could be a more general effect.

Final Conclusions: 

Walker:  If you’re talking to a golfer, would you recommend they try to train the concept or train something of the topic? Is it a recommendation of yours or are you just like, here’s the general concept I don’t think it’s super important?

Harris: I still would believe in the quiet eye training findings. So it seems like a pretty robust effect that quiet eye training does work. I think it maybe just doesn’t work for the reasons we’ve always assumed it works. So like you say, it might be a more general kind of preparation of your mental state and quieting of the brain and the body. So yeah, I would still believe in that kind of finding in the literature, but it’s more the mechanism of why I think we’re not quite sure.

The future of VR and Performance: 

Walker: Can VR in golf be used? What are some of the cool areas that you’re thinking about or that’s on the horizon for us?

Harris: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think we definitely need to explore this a little bit more. The kind of uptake of virtual reality in sport has been quite popular  – people are quite excited about it. I think we retain a fairly skeptical approach that there’s a lot of instances where it’s just not going to be that useful and could even be detrimental. I’ve seen some of the uses in the NFL where they’ve sort of run three plays in like a VR headset, and that seems really cool way of using it. Anything to do with visualization, so maybe you could pop on a VR headset, and you’d have an environment that you’re about to go and perform in, such as Augusta, you can put that on and you can visualize being there. I can definitely see that could be effective. I think the more fine grain development of motor skills is always going to be the challenge as you’re saying about if it doesn’t feel quite right, then it’s not going to work. I don’t think you’re always better off with doing the physical thing. So yeah, there’s lots of challenges for using it for sport.

Harris: One thing we’re starting to look at is how we can introduce some new ways of training in VR. So instead of thinking, can VR just be a way to replace the physical training, to think what can we do in VR that’s new and different and will enhance training? We have started to look at how you can introduce like eye movement training in virtual reality. So that links quite nicely to the quiet eye stuff you’re talking about. So in virtual reality, it’s fairly straightforward to overlay a little gaze cursor or a little red dot to cue your eye movements to a certain place. And we’re kind of looking at this, not in sporting tasks yet, but we think this might be a cool way of augmenting training. So it might be the swinging your club in VR is not the best, but perhaps we can do other things like eye movement training. You could have some kind of automated feedback that is telling you when there’s something different with your swing or there’s something different with your timing of your setup or something like that. So yeah, we’re definitely interested in ways we can improve training and that way.

Applying Quiet Eye Outside of Golf 

Walker: What are some other fields or the areas that you’re using quiet eye training like that, whether it’s another sport or outside of sport.

Harris: Yeah. So other kind of target and aiming sports that it’s definitely applicable to like basketball shooting or archery or shooting a gun, but then also, military applications; it’s quite applicable to; weapons handling and also some surgery work so much as you would use a quite eye looking at a golf ball, prior to your golf swing doing quite dextrous surgical actions, the use of an appropriate gaze strategy is also effective for training them.It helps them to perform better under pressure and it helps them to learn that kind of surgical skills a little bit faster. It’s any kind of tasks while you’re aiming something.

Walker: The goal with that is always to just improve their kind of that duration of helping them start a gaze and then end at a certain point. Is that always the training or the goal?

Harris: Yeah, absolutely. So you’re trying to try grab a blood vessel with some forceps and that’s probably not the right word, but it’s the same principle, right? Like a nice steady gaze. That’s locking onto that target before you like initiate an action towards that is a universal principle. I mean look at what you’re aiming at; it seems really obvious, but it’s applicable has been effective in a lot of areas.

Walker: Interesting, interesting. What we’re summarizing here: is that people are jumping around and so is their mind. So they’re not able to perform when they want to perform at that task because the mind is all over the place and that’s what the eyes are demonstrating. Is that the thought?

Harris: Yeah, definitely. People are actually notoriously quite bad, that’s it? They, you would say like, what were you looking at when you were, doing your golf putt? I was looking at the ball. Well, actually, if we go back and we look at this video recording, you, were kind of, but you were jumping around a little bit. And as you say, that might be reflective of the state you were in, which was not quite focused. And by training these things, there relationship sort of goes both ways, right? You’re you’re not focused and you’re anxious and stressed. And so your eye movements a bit jumpy and a bit unfocused, but if we can get you to focus your eye movements, that sort of works back the other way and helps you settle mentally.