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Rewriting Life

An Impact-Sensing Cap for Sports

Amid rising concern over concussion, a new sensor-filled cap comes with red, yellow, or green LED readouts.

Millions of people participate in sports in which concussions are possible, and such blows to the head can produce long-term damage. There is no easy and cheap way to measure such impacts.

A new product from Reebok and MC10, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will provide a relatively easy way to measure impacts to the head. It uses an unobtrusive, form-fitting skullcap riddled with sensors and stretchable electronics that can be worn with or without helmets.

The product, announced yesterday, won’t be unveiled until early 2013. David Icke, CEO of MC10, says the product would include multiple kinds of sensors and offer red, yellow, or green LED readouts to advise coaches and parents on the severity of an impact.

“Clearly there is a big absence of data out there. Head injuries and head impacts are pervasive in sports – and it’s very difficult to know what happened out on the field. Only a few of the total number of incidents are witnessed by somebody,” he says. “The intent is to have a very simple user experience, to say: ‘Take the kid out of the game.’ ”

Some sensor-filled football helmets sell for $200 to $400. Other, more sophisticated ones cost $1,000 and are used mostly for research. The new product, by contrast, “is something that can be broadly available to youth programs, high school programs, and professional programs,” he says. “It doesn’t do exactly what the high-end ones do. It provides a lot of the value at a much lower price point.” He would not name the price.

It’s not only about football. An estimated 30 million people in the United States participate in sports—including hockey, lacrosse, skiing, snowboarding, and cycling—that often involve the use of helmets. Add helmet-free sports like basketball and soccer, where collisions and hard falls are also common, and the total participants in the United States is above 50 million, Icke says. “It’s essentially a skullcap with integrated electronics—so it’s agnostic to any type of helmet, but also appropriate for unhelmeted sports like soccer and basketball,” Icke says.

Icke is scheduled to discuss the product Thursday morning at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge. The company is working on a variety of high-performance stretchable electronics technologies that can conform to skin or even organs (see “Making Stretchable Electronics”).

Research in recent years has underscored how dangerous and insidious head impacts can be. A study two years ago found that an accumulation of smaller hits can be just as dangerous as a big one that leaves a player dazed—while other research has shown that head injury can be caused not only by hits to the front or rear of the head but also by rotational acceleration.

Continuing to play after such a hit can place a player in danger of sustaining further injury. And head impacts are particularly dangerous to children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls sports-related concussions a serious public health threat.

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