As concern over sports-induced concussions continues to build, there's an increasing demand for new technologies that can prevent or reduce head injuries.
This fall, the NFL offered $10 million for innovations leading to a safer helmet. But as it turns out, a company based in Lowell says they’ve already made one.
From the outside, a Xenith football helmet looks like any other helmet on the market. But the technology inside sets Xenith apart.
"A lot of the foam products that are out there, they’re very stiff, they’re very rigid," Xenith president Chuck Huggins says. "They don’t disperse energy as well as our air cell."
The “air cells” Huggins is talking about are small black pods, roughly the size of two Oreos stacked on top of each other. When they’re pressed, a miniscule hole allows some of the air inside to release. Because of these cells, Huggins says, players in Xenith helmets have less recoil when their heads are hit — and, consequently, less risk of brain injury.
That's not the only thing Xenith does differently.
"All these foam parts are actually attached to the shell itself," Xenith designer Kyle Lamson says, holding up a traditional helmet and peering into its interior. "There’s no movement between the shell and the foam parts. So when the player gets hit, it's going to move as one piece."
But in a Xenith helmet, Lamson says, the cushioned interior (also known as the “bonnet") and the hard shell don’t move in tandem.
"When a player gets hit in our helmet," Lamson says, "the bonnet is able to move to move a little bit independently, with the goal of reducing rotational impacts that are imparted onto the head and the brain."
Also noteworthy: Xenith’s chin strap links directly to another piece, located at the back of the bonnet, that cradles the base of the skull, providing better fit and extra protection.
Thanks to features like these, and growing concern about the risk of concussions, Xenith's share of the football-helmet market is 9 percent and growing — even though the company was founded less than a decade ago.
And Xenith isn’t the only local company using new technology to tackle the concussion epidemic. Take the ReebokChecklight, a joint venture of Reebok and MC10, a Cambridge-based wearable-electronics firm.
"It's a soft-sensing skullcap," MC10 spokeswoman Elyse Kabinoff says of the Checklight. "It measures the energy that's delivered to the head, using an accelerometer that measures linear acceleration and a gyroscope that measures rotational acceleration."
While those technologies sound esoteric, the Checklight provides easy-to-understand visual feedback whenever an athlete's head is struck, flashing yellow for significant impact and red for serious hits. Kabinoff says that makes player duress instantly visible to everyone watching a game, from coaches to parents to other players, and removes some of the pressure on athletes who’ve been injured to make their own diagnoses.
"We’re finding that a lot of athletes in the heat of a game don’t want to raise their hand and say they’ve sustained a hit," Kabinoff explains. "Young athletes especially may not know how best articulate what happened to them. So a light really takes burden off the athlete to report in real time."
Of course, the search for new anti-concussion technologies isn’t restricted to Massachusetts. At the University of Notre Dame, researchers are working on a concussion-diagnosing app that analyzes users’ voices. Meanwhile, products like the Guardian Cap, which straps to the outside of football helmets, and the Full 90, a padded headband for soccer players, take a somewhat lower-tech approach.
In the end, though, none of these approaches eliminates risk altogether. When it comes to the laws of physics, innovation has its limits.