Cathleen Moore, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will use the funds from the National Institutes of Health to develop techniques to make pools safer.
Monday, June 24, 2024

By Alice Eberhart

Cathleen Moore, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Starch Faculty Fellow, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for $413,267 to study how lifeguard training can be improved using virtual reality. 

A portrait of Cathleen Moore
Cathleen Moore

Moore and her team will research the limitations and impact of attention and perception on lifeguarding. They will use virtual reality to test various methods of training. 

Understanding  the limitations will allow for development of better safety training and increased injury prevention, Moore said.  

“The basic problem is that the surveillance component of lifeguarding requires that lifeguards actively monitor a complex and constantly changing scene for poorly specified critical events,” Moore said.  

“For example, they have to notice if one swimmer goes under for too long while other swimmers are simultaneously going under for variable durations. The attentional and perceptual demands of the task are enormous but are rarely considered when identifying safety vulnerabilities at aquatics facilities.” 

Moore co-leads the Visual Perception Research Group at the University of Iowa where she researches the strengths and limitations of human perception. She also received a UI Injury Prevention Research Center pilot grant in 2022 for studying a swimming pool lifeguarding environment.  

Moore focuses on how perception interacts with cognitive processing and how this can affect our experiencing of the physical world. For lifeguarding, this means finding what causes something to stick out about the observed environment, how that is then processed, and how or why action or inaction follows.  

Assuming a lifeguard will notice all critical events if they are paying attention is misguided, Moore said. The environment is complex and simply “focusing” won’t guarantee active processing and reactions. Carefully focusing can even be the cause of missing incidents elsewhere, she added.  

 Studying lifeguarding scenarios can be challenging because complex environments and unique critical events are hard to control and keep standardized. There is also the issue of studying events that endanger human lives.  

Virtual reality will allow for precise control over the environment and what events are being studied with easy replicability, Moore said. The research team can introduce specific “critical events” at controlled times to see how perception is impacted. 

“Given our simplified controlled environment, we can compare what simulated lifeguards are doing differently than real-life lifeguards,” Moore said. “Then, we can test specific impacts of cognitive and perceptual limitations in a simulated lifeguarding task. This will allow us to identify what vulnerabilities are greatest and what kinds of mitigating factors can be introduced to reduce surveillance failures.”   

Once research is complete, the hope is to make the training system available to the public for future lifeguard training. In the lab, the team use commercially available VR equipment so the system will be accessible for other organizations once it's available.  

Moore told the Injury Prevention Research Center the team will apply for longer-term funding in the future to test alternative training programs for local pools. 

“We hope to develop customized environments that simulate real pools. For example, the City Park pool in Iowa City or parts of the water park at Adventure Land in Des Moines,” Moore said.