Rock climbers don high-tech glasses for MSUB research


Eric Brown/MSU Billings

MSU Billings Professor Clinton Culp observes video from cameras mounted on eye-tracking glasses worn by a research participant who was climbing MSUB’s rock wall.

Two professors in the College of Allied Health Professionals at Montana State University Billings are conducting a research project using eye-tracking glasses, the university’s rock wall and a dozen student-participants.

Clinton Culp, an Outdoor Adventure Leadership assistant professor, and Alex Shafer, a Health and Human Performance assistant professor, who have offices a few steps apart in the campus’ physical education building, began working on this project over the summer. By the end of summer 2018, they hope to have a research paper ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.

“We’ve got enough data for at least three different papers,” Culp said.

The two are gathering data from 12 participants, who wear eye-tracking glasses and a heart-rate monitor while climbing the 20-foot-high rock wall. Shafer’s focus is the participants’ physiological information, such as maximum oxygen consumption during exertion, while Culp is in charge of psychometric markers, which he said include “attentional control, emotional regulation and how those things tend to relate to the physiological markers.”


Eric Brown/MSU Billings

Culp models a pair of the Tobii eye-tracking glasses worn by research participants.

Six males and six females are taking part in the study, and they are further categorized as being self-reported experienced rock climbers or novice rock climbers.

The key component in this research is the Tobii eye-tracking glasses, which have recently been used in the military, sports and marketing. One pair, along with the analyzing software, costs about $17,000.

“We are employing eye-tracking technology that allows us to see part of the decision-making process,” Shafer said. “We can see where they are looking before they make a move.”

Each participant climbed the rock wall while wearing the glasses, which transmitted the data to a computer where it can be viewed and recorded.

“The glasses have a wide-angle camera that faces out; inside the glasses there is a little gray frame that has two cameras focused on each eye and looking at the retina,” Culp said. “Once it’s calibrated, the computer is able to track the retinas’ movements and overlays a red circle on the outward-facing image that’s being recorded at the same time.”

This technology allows the researchers to observe what a climber is looking at, and for how long, while ascending the wall. This information will be used in conjunction with physiological and psychological data collected on each participant and correlated with levels of climbing experience to produce a picture illustrating important differences between experienced and new climbers.

“It tracks eye movement and that directly relates to attentional control and what cues experts pay attention to versus the cues that novices pay attention to,” Culp said.

The results of this study should be of interest to professionals across a range of fields, including outdoor recreation, motor learning and exercise physiology.

“The idea is to be able to look for ways to increase the states and traits of a novice decision maker and allow them to figure out how to pay attention to relevant cues faster, so they can decrease the time it takes to become an expert,” Culp said.

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