Movie Technology Aids Childhood Research

January 28, 2011 5:43 AM

Arthur Nead

Using the digital motion-capture technology that made the fabulous worlds of the films Avatar and Tron Legacy possible, Tulane psychologists are analyzing the early development of coordination skills in babies. Psychology professor Jeffrey Lockman is leading the $1.6 million, five-year study.

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Sadie Corey wears tiny infrared-reflective markers that enable researchers to study her hand-mouth coordination. (Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano)

"We are studying the development of hand-mouth coordination during the first year — a basic adaptive skill for self-feeding and self-calming," Lockman. The research is funded by a new award from the National Institutes of Health.

Approximately 600 babies from two months to 18 months of age will be studied at the Tulane Infant and Toddlers Development Project laboratory, where they will be filmed using infrared cameras placed at different vantage points.

"This is a motion analysis system," says Lockman. "We put infrared-reflective markers on the babies’ arms, on the objects they hold, and also on their faces, on their cheeks and jaws. 

"We make sure mom or dad is present and affix the markers with hypoallergenic tape so the children don't experience any distress or discomfort."

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Motion-capture technology allows psychologist Jeffrey Lockman, center, to study how babies develop hand-mouth coordination. Assisting him are students Wendy Jung, right, and Bjorn Kahrs, left.

The cameras, capturing 240 images per second, record motion in high detail. Software blends the images from all the cameras into a moving three-dimensional image of the child's activities.

"The system calculates where each camera is with respect to every other camera, and the composite of all the 2-D camera images is used to compute in three dimensions where each marker actually is," says Björn Kahrs, a graduate student researcher.

Hand-to-mouth transport is a critical adaptive skill for babies and adults alike, enabling individuals to feed themselves. "Early problems in this skill can compromise the quality of daily life," Lockman says. 

The Tulane project is assessing coordination development in a much more detailed way than has previously been done, according to Lockman. "It will give us milestones for when a baby should be able to do certain things and it also potentially can be used in medical settings, for assessing babies with motor problems, and for looking at the effectiveness of different kinds of interventions."

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