Vizual Edge seen as 'weight training for the eyes'

Dr. Barry Seiller thinks he has developed technology that can give athletes a boost to their on-field performance. And don't worry sports fans, it's legal.

It's called Vizual Edge Performance Trainer, and it's being utilized by several Division I athletic programs, two major league ballclubs and the U.S. softball team.

Here's how it works: Vizual Edge is designed to help athletes improve their visual skills, which they use constantly during competition.

For example, on a punt return, the returner might use five or six different visual skills. He will need to track the ball through the air, determine its speed and trajectory, use his visual motor skills to catch the ball and finally shift his focus to determine where the offensive and defensive players are located on the field.

"You look at sports terms and a lot of them are about vision," Seiller said. "How someone sees the field. How do you feel those players behind you? They always talk about the great players see the play going on slower than it really is."

The athletes who use Vizual Edge are first tested to determine the weak aspects of their visual skills.

The test allows Seiller and his staff to gather data on visual abilities that can be converted into a single numerical score. The athlete then gets a custom CD-rom that comes with 3-D glasses and a video game controller. The CD-rom is designed to help improve visual skills in areas where the test results were low. The athlete can then perform a variety of digitized exercises on a personal computer a few times a week for about 15 minutes.

Seiller believes that after the program, visual deficiencies are improved and players will see better results in their performances.

"A lot of times you can have athletes in any sport that have all the physical skills," said Kathy Puchalski, a visual performance specialist at Vizual Edge. "To us we have found that sometimes visual skills can be off. And that is one component of performance."

Some players who say they have benefited from this technology include Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs and former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez. Four of the eight teams in the NCAA Women's College World Series, including champion Arizona and runner-up Northwestern, were Vizual Edge clients.

Northwestern softball coach Kate Drohan was introduced to Vizual Edge through Basanez. The Wildcats made the program one of their practice stations during hitting drills in the fall. It was also utilized by injured players during the season.

"I could tell a difference. I think the program helped," first baseman Garland Cooper said. "People focused more on tracking the ball in the air and seeing the ball out of the pitcher's hand."

Seiller describes Vizual Edge as "weight training for the eyes." He envisions it becoming a mainstay everyday training regimen for athletes.

"We fully expect that in a few years, as this percolates and grows, it will be a much more traditional training method," he said. "At this point, the similarity would be like weight training in the 1970s."

The roots of Vizual Edge can be traced back to the early 1990s, when visual training became a popular method of treating children with learning disabilities that affected their reading. Seiller began noticing that eye training helped children academically and athletically.

During the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, Seiller showcased a visual skills training program geared toward sports performance at the Bausch & Lomb Vision Center, attracting the interest of several U.S. teams. By 1993, his clients included the U.S. ski, skelton, luge, bobsled and snowboard teams.

In 1996, Georgia Tech heard about Seiller's program from Bausch & Lomb representatives working at the Atlanta Summer Games. Two years later, Georgia Tech became the first NCAA athletic program to use visual training.

The Vizual Edge Performance Trainer was created in 2002 and was the first software program that allowed users to train their vision without the presence of a professional, giving athletes the opportunity to train on their own time and at a relatively low cost.

Georgia Tech is the only university to use Vizual Edge for all sports. The Yellow Jackets have three rooms, three computers and a part-time visual specialist who works exclusively with Vizual Edge. The visual training rooms are located in the Homer Rice Center for Sports Performance, a facility designed to aid athletes through science and technology.

Larry New, Georgia Tech's senior associate athletic director, estimates the Vizual Edge facility costs more than $20,000 annually to operate. Still, he said the benefits to the program far outweigh the cost.

"If someone tells you they have a problem healthwise, you fix it," New said. "When these kids see they have a deficit somewhere, we can sit it down and help them with it."

New said not all students use the training program. When Texas Rangers first baseman and former Yellow Jacket Mark Teixeira was tested by Vizual Edge, he scored very well in all categories, but New said he is the exception, not the rule.

"I remember when we first started [visual training] we had a senior baseball player come in and tells us, 'For the first time in my life, I can pick up the ball coming out of a pitcher's hand and I can see the seams,'" New said. "That's a huge advantage."

In addition to determining the eye deficiencies of an athlete, the test scores can be used to determine a player's potential. Scouts for the Cincinnati Reds administer the eye exam to potential draft picks on their laptops and send the information to Vizual Edge. Paul Pierson, the assistant director of scouting for the Reds, said the data helps them make an informed decision.

"You gather as much information as possible," he said. "If you buy a piece of property, you go out and get it surveyed."

Seiller said he has also contacted the NFL about using Vizual Edge testing at the scouting combine.

"If you had three tight ends and they all rated out the same from all of their physical testing, we could help differentiate them from all of their visual testing," Seiller said.

Athletes who use Vizual Edge are expected to notice an improvement in their visual test scores, but it remains to be seen whether it consistently leads to better performance on the field.

In a survey conducted by Vizual Edge, 18 of 24 professional baseball players who used the software on a regular basis said it improved their performance. A third-party study at Texas A&M is currently examining the eye technology effect on athletic ability.

Grant Griesser, the Reds' assistant director of player development, said the team requires players in Class A and rookie league to train with Vizual Edge. He is uncertain if the training leads to better performance.

"What we found is the more they do the training sessions, they get better at it and score better for the most part," he said. "Whether or not that translates to a higher fielding percentage or batting average is hard to say."

New, a former coach, says the training gives players more confidence, and that alone provides an edge.

"If kids believe it is helping them, that helps them win psychologically," he said. "If they keep coming back [for the training], they see benefits and they believe there are benefits."

Drohan said that as the gap between competition continues to narrow, teams will look for new and creative ways to gain a competitive advantage.

"Everybody understands how close the competition is, as far as talent and ability," she said. "Everybody is looking for that edge and this [visual training] is an area that has gone untapped in softball, and we are finally starting to focus on it with the development of this product."

Brendan Murphy is a college sports intern at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy.-ND@espn3.com.