Sports

This Neuroscientist-Backed Football Helmet Could Change The Game For The Better

If you're not familiar with American football (the sport that, while not the national pastime, might as well be), here's all you need to know: one person holds a ball while trying to reach the end of the field, and many other people try to get the ball by slamming into him. And they slam hard—so hard that 40 percent of former football players have signs of brain injuries, according to a study. Despite that, the one thing designed to protect players' heads hasn't kept up with the times: football helmets haven't seen a significant redesign for nearly 50 years. But one Seattle startup has changed all that, and their new creation is set to change the world of football forever.

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From Ear Flaps to Crumple Zones

Though the football helmet's origin story is murky, the most popular says it was invented in 1893, when a college football player asked his shoemaker to fashion him a moleskin hat with earflaps. Since then, the helmet evolved from hard leather tin the 1930s to plastic with padding in the '50s to molded polycarbonate in the 1980s. In that time, the biggest design change was certainly the face mask—before that addition, teams were plagued with black eyes and bloody lips. The single-bar face mask was added to the padded plastic helmet in 1956. Since then, improvements have come in the form of extra padding, face protection, and even injury-indicator chin straps. But despite great advancements in science and technology, the football helmet hasn't had a full redesign. That is, until a neuroscientist, engineering professor, and CEO founded the company Vicis to create the Zero1 helmet.

According to WIRED, Vicis's Zero1 helmet gets inspiration from another arena that deals with impact: the automotive industry. Akin to a car with crumple zones, the Zero1 is made with a soft outer shell that surrounds a layer of flexible columns that bend when they're compressed. On impact, WIRED reports, "the columns transform from an I shape to a C, and then snap back into place in milliseconds. This, [Vicis CEO Dave Marver] claims, slows the acceleration of force before it reaches the player's head." Beyond that, layers of memory foam cradle the head, while two of the four chin-strap snaps affix to the inner shell to help curb the energy from the jaw. Players even get a wider field of view from traditional helmets.

The ZERO1 football helmet.
Inside the VICIS testing lab.

Does It Work?

In May of 2017, the NFL released the results of the annual lab tests it performs to determine which helmets best protect players' heads from impact. Out of 33 helmets tested—23 of which were from leading helmet manufacturers Riddell and Schutt Sports—Vicis's Zero1 ranked first. Vicis claims that its helmet can reduce concussion rates by as much as half. It seems that the NFL has taken notice: Inc. reports that 25 of the league's 32 teams purchased the helmets for players to use during practice in 2017. If the helmet can really do all that lab tests say it can, the future of football could look a whole lot safer.

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