How well you see is a function not only of your eyes, but the quickness of your brain in recognizing any image. In theory, training the brain to "see" better should lead to the same sort of improvement as, say, a new pair of glasses.
That's the thinking behind a new video-game that trains the brain to be more responsive, and it appears to be paying dividends for a college baseball team in California.
"Baseball is a highly visual sport. Professional players on average have much better vision than the normal population," explains Aaron Seitz, a professor of psychology at U.C. Riverside.
"Hitting a ball at 100 miles per hour means you have to make visual decisions based on very little information in a very small amount time. So, there's good reason to believe that even a small improvement in vision could lead to a measurable improvement in performance."
The game is called Ultimeyes and is based on Seitz's research into the brain’s visual processing center. Like an old Atari game, players need to zap blobs as they move across a screen, and the task becomes more difficult as time goes on. The blobs grow smaller and dimmer making them harder to see, and "distractor" shapes appear alongside, testing your ability to distinguish between targets.
"By exercising with difficult tasks, you train your visual system to perform better," Seitz says.
U.C. Riverside's baseball team tested Ultimeyes before the 2012/3 season. Each player sat five feet from a screen for 25 minutes at a time, completing 30 sessions each. The extra training seemed to pay off. By season's end, the team had more runs and fewer strikeouts than any other outfit in its league.
More impressively than that, a Moneyball-type statistical analysis showed that U.C. Riverside won four to five games more than the numbers would suggest it would have won, according to Seitz's colleague, Daniel Ozer.
Seitz admits that several factors could have played a part in the performance, including simple placebo effect, and he concedes that more testing is needed. However, Ozer's statistics were backed by anecdotal evidence from the team's coach and players.
"The coach felt the players were seeing things differently," Seitz says. "There were pitches they previously would swing at that they didn't, and pitches they wouldn't swing at that they did. After the training, some players said they could now see the stitching of the ball."
Seitz's interest isn't only in sports. He'd like the game to help people with glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other eye problems.
Ultimeyes, which launched in January, has only been available in an iOS version so far. But it's already been downloaded 25,000-plus times, with customers paying $5.99 a time. An Android version is coming soon, together with new features, Seitz says.