Cathy Craig

A shot thunders towards goal. At the last minute the ball takes a wicked deflection. For the goalkeeper it's an instant decision. A split second for their brain to analyse the direction and speed of the ball, to pull off a match winning save or leave their teammates in despair as the net behind them bulges.

Until recently, coaches training their keepers relied on nothing but their own perception to help goalkeepers refine their skills, but now the world of immersive technology is taking the process forward light years. Through head mounted displays units, virtual reality can now be used to analyse their performances in real time and to improve the way they respond to a variety of situations.

This particular software, Cleansheet, has been created for goalkeepers, but the same data analytic technology is being developed to improve decision making in every aspect of sport.

That technology is being developed here in Northern Ireland at INCISIV, a pioneering company founded by Professor Cathy Craig, the first in the world to use immersive, interactive virtual reality technology to understand decision-making in sport. Over the last few years she has refined the technology working with some of the world's leading sports experts and players.

Currently Professor of Experimental Psychology at Ulster University, Cathy's interest in this field was kindled while taking an undergraduate degree and PhD in Psychology at Edinburgh University.

Her father started a club in the little village of Armoy, just outside Ballycastle in the beautiful Glens of Antrim, where she grew up. She played hockey at Edinburgh and rugby in Marseilles, where she lived subsequently with her Swiss husband and young daughter.

After several years in Marseilles working on a post doctorate project, Cathy found the lure of home was becoming stronger. When a suitable position became vacant at Queen's University, she applied immediately.

While at Queen's she received a European Research Council grant which allowed her to dedicate five years to researching human movement. "It was looking at everything to do with how the brain controls movement," she says. "How we move, why we move, why sometimes we can't move."

In the early days the technology was very expensive and the software was difficult to develop but in the last few years Cathy's world leading research has benefitted from a huge advance in immersive technology. "When I set up my lab at Queen's it cost around £100,000," she says. "Today I can buy the same technology for £500 or less."

Whatever the application, the basic method used is broadly similar. The visual information is presented to the brain, through the eyes, by a headset. Hand held motion controllers track movement and allow you to interact with the digital content.

"The technology has advanced so rapidly," Cathy says, "that you can walk into a room with the headset on, draw out the space you want to move in and go. You don't even need an external computer. The tracking is done in the headset. The technology is fantastic in recreating the real viewpoint of the player."

By 2018, Cathy was ready to take the technology to market. Working with Belfast's Ormeau Baths tech hub and with the support of the Invest NI Propel programme there, Cathy formed INCISIV.

"Basically, we're translating 20 years of know-how into technologies and products that can help people perform better in sports," she says. "The first off the conveyor belt was Cleansheet, which really began when I was in Marseilles and working on a collaborative project with Adidas. They were developing their Predator football boots and wanted to analyse the degree of curve they could put on the ball."

Cathy's work analysing the impact of concussion has seen her liaise with sports and medical experts around Europe as well as players at every level, including pupils at Campbell College in Belfast and Ballymena Academy. She explains the advantages of using immersive technology in this field.

"Beforehand, we weren't getting objective measures of brain function, such as movement, to understand when players with concussion could return to their sport. Every brain injury is different, every impact is different. Analysis was therefore very subjective. Now virtual reality can control what the brain sees and hears and we can measure precisely how the brain responds."

With vital support from NI Screen's Future Screens programme, also based at the Ormeau Baths, Cathy is embarking on more intensive data collection for this project. VR-HIT (Virtual Reality Head Injury Tool) is now seeking FDA approval so they can branch out in the US market.

While becoming an ever more valuable tool for improving performances in a variety of sports – Cathy worked with Ulster rugby for several years and is currently working with Scottish rugby, for instance – there are other exciting non-sporting areas INCISIV are exploring, including helping people with Parkinson's Disease.

"The beauty of technology," Cathy says, "is that the only limit is your imagination."