Sitting Down With… Melissa Hunfalvay, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at RightEye, USA
Phoebe Harkin | | Interview
You started out as an athlete – how did you become a scientist?
I originally came to the USA from Australia on a college tennis scholarship. I turned professional but ended up getting an injury. I started coaching and doing graduate studies at the same time. A lot of my doctorate focused on motor learning: what it takes to learn a skill. I was teaching a great athlete, a 15-year-old girl. One day, at the end of the lesson, we played a few games. She served, and I returned with a drop shot. She missed it and looked completely taken aback.
I did it again on the next point, and she moved but was too late to pick it up. I did it again on the third point and she threw her racket down, infuriated. What perplexed me was that if she had known where to look and what to look for, she would have been able to anticipate that shot seconds ahead of time. Even though she was faster and stronger than me, she wasn’t able to get to it – simply because she couldn’t see it early enough.
Around that time, I came across an article talking about a new technology called eye tracking. It was really primitive – lab-based with heavy wires everywhere – but had offered some interesting results. In a comparison of experienced versus inexperienced soccer goalkeepers, researchers found that the experienced goalkeeper looked at the rotation of the leg and the foot before the ball was kicked and was therefore able to predict its trajectory. And that’s similar to what I was seeing in tennis. In short, inexperienced players end up reacting to the ball, rather than being proactive.
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