The App that Trains You to See Farther... or Does It?


According to an article published yesterday in Popular Mechanics based on an article published this week in Current Biology, a new application named "Ultimeyes" has been created that can train you to see further. One of the co-authors - Aaron Seitz has taken to Reddit to field questions on the application and the conversation is enlightening - perhaps more so than reading the published paper which leaves key questions unanswered.

The neuroscientists found that after using the app for thirty twenty-five minute sessions, baseball players had improved vision, decreased strike-outs and more runs which "may have led to an additional four to five team wins". The players were evidently pleased, reporting: “seeing the ball much better”, experiencing “greater peripheral vision” finding it “easy to see further”, finding themselves “able to distinguish lower contrasting things” and believing their “eyes feel stronger, they don’t get tired as much”. 

Two words that are notable by their absence from the paper are the words "placebo" and "blind". For an experiment that is so obviously vulnerable to the placebo effect it seems bizarre that no placebo control group was used and that the players knew which group they were in - this has been confirmed by Seitz on Reddit. Another interesting outcome of the Reddit discussion is that the groups were not only not randomised, but the baseball coaches actively placed the participants - "the coach wanted the position players to get the training". It seems the coach decided that the control group would be made up entirely of pitchers and the experimental group would be made up of hitters.

Until the experiment is repeated with a placebo control group we'll have no way of knowing if the effects are real or a result of the placebo effect. One thing we do know for sure is that the placebo effect can provide exceedingly powerful gains to sportsman. This was demonstrated this week by BBC's Horizon special on the Power of the Placebo which showed how professional cyclists could not only beat other players but beat their own personal best, when tricked into thinking they were taking a performance enhancer.

A quick reading of the Current Biology paper might leave you agreeing with the authors that "this approach has great potential to aid many individuals that rely on vision, including not only athletes looking to optimize their visual skills but also individuals with low vision engaged in everyday tasks" and consequently dashing to the app store to splash out $5.99 on the app. Until I've seen a replication with a randomised, double blind, placebo control group, I for one will be keeping my $5.99 firmly in my wallet.

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