Gates, drawn to the project out of his friendship with Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen; Lowell Wood, the aforementioned inventor and an astrophysicist with more patents to his name than Thomas Edison; Danny Hillis, an innovator who once described his super computer as “a machine that will be proud of us.”
A successful patent could potentially have unlocked football’s $500 million future of helmets with sensors that detect concussion-causing hits. Its creators would be able to cash in on a future of helmets designed individually for each player’s unique biomechanics.
But there was a problem: Not even Gates and Wood and the 19 others could figure out how to build a helmet that truly solves the issue at hand. A helmet that measures the force of a hit has limited utility, but one that can measure the impact that hit has on a player’s brain could change the sport.
“This technology is pretty solid at clearly measuring the forces on the helmet, but they’re not measuring the forces on your brain,” said Geoff Manley, chief of neurosurgery at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and co-director of the Brain and Spinal Injury Center at the University of California-San Francisco. “Just measuring the forces outside the cranium doesn’t give you an accurate picture of what’s going on inside your head.”
A study published in March in the Journal of Athletic Training found that “head-impact-monitoring systems have limited clinical utility due to error rates, designs, and low specificity in predicting concussive injury.”
After eight hours, the team of inventors, brought together by global inventions firm Intellectual Ventures, produced a helmet with sensors embedded in the interior lining to detect forces exerted upon the wearer. It had a transmitter near the base of the helmet to send a signal to the sideline when the wearer should be checked for injury. It featured alert devices such as sirens or flashing lights, according to a patent published in October.
It was a promising design, according to football equipment experts, but it still probably will not achieve the goal of accurately detecting concussions.
The reason so many major players are pursuing this invention is because it has the potential to fulfill the future helmet companies envision: an era when players will wear specifically fitted helmets for their position, head structure and the way their brains each react to linear and angular force, according to Thad Ide, the senior vice president for research and product development for sports equipment company Riddell.
Football’s protective equipment has gotten so good, there’s not much for sporting good companies to improve anymore outside the skull, said Jeff Carbeck, the specialist leader for advanced materials and manufacturing at Deloitte. The unchartered business territory is inside the skull, and the product that can accurately monitor head impact forces and concussion risk would be marketable to football players, sure, but also soccer players and rugby players, and even the military. But manufacturers have yet to crack the code for such a product.
“It’s a little bit of the wild west right now,” said David Camarillo, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. His lab is working on a force-measurement mouth guard. “Most of these businesses, as far as I can tell, it’s been kind of a grave yard. A lot of these businesses don’t make it.”
That hasn’t deterred larger business interests, though, from putting more stock in sensors in football gear. Almost every major football equipment manufacturing company works with instrumented helmets.