Strobe lights tend to come with dance parties nowadays, but the stroboscope was invented in the 1930s as a laboratory tool. A professor at MIT, Harold “Doc” Edgerton, introduced the tool to the wider world when he started using it to create photographs of bullets on impact and other phenomena too fast for the human eye or the camera shutter to capture unaided. By the 1960s, however, Ken Kesey and his fellow psychonauts had adopted it as mood lighting for their acid tests, and that’s where the strobe has remained in the public imagination.
But not everyone is ready to cede the flashing light to dance clubs. In the world of sports, where there’s always enormous pressure to find the slightest (preferably non-drug-test-failing) edge, trainers have been experimenting with strobe lights. Just as sprinters run with drag parachutes to strengthen their legs and baseball players weigh down their bats with iron doughnuts to take their practice swings, handicapping vision during training can end up improving reflexes and timing. Obi-Wan Kenobi, in his wisdom, knew this, of course. But those of us who do not have the Jedi sixth sense aren’t much use totally blinded. What strobe lights do is blind us intermittently, making it more difficult, but not impossible, to do balance and reaction drills.
According to Stephen Mitroff, a Duke University neuroscientist who has studied the effect, there’s evidence that it works. People who undergo stroboscopic training, he says, “are better able to pick up subtle motion cues, better able to hold [a] thing in their working memory. We found improvements in anticipatory timing: being able to predict when a moving object is going to be at a certain spot.”
Nike (NKE) got interested in the idea two years ago and began selling a set of stroboscopic eyeglasses, Nike SPARQ Vapor Strobe, in which liquid-crystal lenses flash between transparent and opaque at a rate set by the user. With a pair of $300 glasses, a strobe-lit training room could go wherever an athlete wanted.
Nike also commissioned research into the efficacy of the glasses, and one of those papers has just been published. Mitroff is the lead author of the new paper looking at the efficacy of the glasses for athletes. The study, he emphasizes, is just a pilot with a sample size of 11—and the fact that a pilot study is coming out two years after the glasses hit the market should tell you something about the claims sporting goods companies make for their products. Still, the results are encouraging.
Test subjects come from the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, where two of the paper’s co-authors are trainers for the team. Two of the other authors were former Nike employees who had worked on the SPARQ vision project. Mitroff himself advises Nike and has received grants from the company. He emphasizes, though, that he set up the pilot to insulate against conflicts of interest, since the data were gathered by the two co-authors with no connection to Nike.
In the study, the NHL players were asked to do a basic skating and puck-handling drill, followed by either a shot on goal (for the forwards) or a long pass (defensemen) rated for accuracy. Then they went through 16 days of preseason training, some wearing the glasses every day, others not. Despite what surely was a broad variance in how much the players wore the glasses, the researchers found that they did make a difference. All the players who wore the strobe glasses got more accurate at the test drills. Most of the non-glasses players did not.
If that’s enough to get you to shell out $300 for a pair, there is some bad news: Nike has discontinued the glasses. The company hasn’t yet responded to a query made yesterday about why the decision was made. There is a Japanese company that still makes a model. Mitroff himself says he’s been contacted by professional teams and amateur athletes alike asking for help finding a pair. The best thing he can suggest is eBay (EBAY). Right now someone is selling a pair of the Nike glasses on the site for $800.