Professor Cathy Craig’s research space at the Queen’s Physical Education Centre is a long gallery known as the Movement Innovation Lab. But it used to have another purpose.
‘Originally, it was to be a rifle range,’ Cathy says, ‘but there was never a shot fired here.’
Not a surprise in the Northern Ireland of the 70s. But these days there are different targets. Cathy, a Professor in the School of Behavioural Science, is engaged in a unique research project, which looks at how we move, why we move and why sometimes we can’t. She studied psychology at Edinburgh University. ‘I really enjoyed research. I was particularly interested in movement and perception and action – things like how we can hit a golf ball, how we can walk across the street between cars, how the brain decodes that information and allows us to guide our actions.’
For her PhD she focused on the problems of pre-term infants, devising a method of monitoring their sucking actions as a way of identifying future coordination difficulties.
After university she spent eight years working at a movement and perception lab at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille. ‘We did all sorts of experiments – parabolic flights where you can actually experience zero gravity – and I got into virtual reality as a resource. It was there that I discovered the power of virtual reality technology as a way of probing the complexities of the visual system.’
She was also able to combine her work with her love of sport. By using virtual reality to simulate realistic sporting scenarios (e.g. curved free kicks in soccer, side-step in rugby or batting in cricket) she can accurately measure how they respond. Through this line of research she has had the opportunity to work with some of Ireland’s finest rugby and cricket players (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUc7slmeG9U and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOiQmnqWWlc). She has also worked with adidas innovation team football to try and see how accurate the world’s best soccer players are at anticipating a ball’s flight path.
Cathy’s research also looks at how we can get people to move better. “Movement is fundamental to everything we do. We control our eyes to read text, our hand to pick up a pen, our feet when we walk. But what happens when the control of our movements breaks down, as in Parkinson’s Disease or changes as we get older?”
Her Movement Innovation Lab is equipped with an array of technological equipment but there is one curious construction. In the middle is a balance board, embedded in a foam platform, with a zimmer frame but also a video screen.
Cathy explains, ‘We’ve created our own computer games specifically designed for adults over 65 who have difficulty controlling their balance. Older adults have really taken to it. They love the fact the score in the game tells them something about their balance ability. That then motivates them to try and do better. You would be amazed at how competitive 80 year olds can be!’ (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uspC9SSGLtg )
Other research concerns people with Parkinson’s Disease. ‘Parkinson’s attacks the gearbox of the motor system of the brain, that part which allows you to initiate movement and to control it smoothly. We found that if you provide people with a cue, it makes a difference and they can actually move much better. We’re using the sound that’s made when someone walks on gravel. You can tell how big they are, how fast they’re moving, that sort of thing. We have shown that people can use those sounds to walk better. The next step is to see how we can take this outside the lab so that it can be used in everyday life.’ (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahfG8mCIi4w)
To measure human movement precisely, Cathy uses very sophisticated infrared cameras that record the motion of reflective markers placed all over the body. This is the same technology that is used for computer animation.
‘We’re trying to understand how someone moves and, if there’s something wrong, how you can improve things. We’re trying to make a difference to people’s lives.’ (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5Acgsos8U0&index=3&list=PLtWYVQb6M8bWpA3LQLn2UrmSwbpx8Y5DD )