The Zero1 Flexible Football Helmet May Save Players’ Brains

Football is a game of simplephysics: One player has a ball, and many other players who do not have the ball want to stop him in his tracks. Sometimes this interaction happens at high speed. Speeds so fast that the parties involved banginto each other with aG force-out equivalent to a bowling ball being dropped on ahead from 8feet high.

Football is a beautifully violent game, which is the reason Americans simultaneously exalt and dread the sport. Its the reason people cheer when a cornerback builds the tackle or a linebacker pummels his opponent. Its also the reason that one out of every three players in the NFL willexperience some sort of brain traumaduring hiscareer. According to an investigation from Frontline, there have been nearly 200 so far this NFL season, and those are just the concussions that were officially reported.

The NFL has a very real head injury problem. And after years of outright denial, the organization has finally begun to acknowledge its culpabilitythrough payouts, research grants around traumatic brain traumata, and initiatives like the Head Health Challenge, which dedicates grants to companies working on advancements in football-related head health. One of those grant recipients was Vicis. Now, the Seattle company hasdesigned a new, flexible helmet called the Zero1 it believes can reduce the chances of a player sustaining a .

Football players have always worn some form of protective head gear. Beforethe plastic boom of the 1950 s, were made from leather and looked like aviator caps. It wasnt until the 1970 s that helmets included energy-absorbing foam to help mitigate the traumatic effects ofimpact. Buthelmet design hasnt evolved much in the pastforty years; today’s headgear is marked by a stiff outer shell and padded interior thats meant to prevent skull fractures and brain hemorrhages.

Helmets was ever intended to prevent concussions, says Sam Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon and a cofounder of Vicis. Unlike fractures, a concussion is a more nuanced injury whose detrimental side effect are still being investigated. What we do know is that it occurs, generally, when a person sustains an impact that causes the untethered brain to jostle and itstissue to strain. Physicians in the field like to use the phrase, if youve considered one concussion, youve considered one concussion, which is a clever route of saying no one knows precisely what causes a concussion.

But researchers have been busy collectinginsights. They know, for example, that its likely a force-related event, and that rotational forces–a glancing jolt, for example–are more likely to cause a concussion than head-on collisions. Still , no two concussions are the same, which induces it nearly impossible to design a perfect solution. What were really trying to do is take this common sense approach to it, Browd says. The more force reduction you can bring, the more likely you are to reduce the risk of concussion.


Viciss helmet borrows notions from the automotive industry, which has employed plastic bumpers and crumple zones as protective measures for decades. Its a very challenging engineering problem, Browd says. Instead of trying to slow a car down over many feet or yards, were trying to slow these impacts down over 2.5 inches. The Zero1, which was designed with the help of Seattle design studio Artefact, revolves around a multilayered system that begins with a flexible outer shell made from a bendable plastic and ends with an inner shell and liner that are meant to provide a more customized fit around the head.

Beneath the outer shell is the core layer, which is comprised of hundreds of flexible columns that act like shock absorber. This layer is the heart of the Vicis helmet, and was developed with the help of Per Reinhall, head of the University of Washingtons mechanical engineering department and a co-founder of Vicis. The columns, which vary in duration and thickness depending on their position in the helmet, are made from a resilient polymer that bends in any devoted direction when compressed.

Vicis CEO Dave Marver explains that, upon impact, the columns transform from an I shape to a C, and then snap back into place in milliseconds.This, he claims, slackens the acceleration of force before it reaches the players head. Newtons second statute, he says. Force equals mass hours acceleration. The mass of a player’s not going to change, but if you are able slow acceleration–the “a” in the equation–youre reducing force.

Here’s anelementary physics metaphor to help you understand: The brain is like an egg yolk. Typical helmets will avoid the egg from cracking, but they wont necessarily halting the yolk from breaking inside the shell. The Zero1s core layer is meant to act like bubble wrap, so when the egg( your head) does reach something hard, the majority of the force will be redistributed. Other companies like Bell are tackling this same problem with a technologycalledMIPS, or multi-directional impact protection system. Its version of Vicis’ core layer utilizes a rotating layer inside the helmet, which allows the head to move with the impact, ultimately displacing some of energy the brain would otherwise absorb.

Vicis says it’s tested the helmet through drop-off exams( where the G-force of impact is measured by falling a sensor-laden dummy head onto a fixed rubber anvil from varying heights) and a more sophisticated, rotational exam where a moving pendulum strikes the helmet from the side. The company claims that, compared to other leading helmets from Riddell and Shutt, its helmet can reduce the force of impact by anywhere from 20 to 50 percent–a figure they say has been confirmed in third-party labs.

Tim Gay, a physics professorat the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of The Physic of Football , says the helmet’s principles work in theory, but there are few ways to know for certain without testing iton an actual player. Its very difficult to see ahead of period whether its going to work or not, he says. I appreciate that theyre trying to attain video games safer, but I want to see the data they have.

The company plans to testits helmet against Virginia Techs STAR rating, which measures a helmets they are able to absorb impact and potentialprotect against concussions. If the Zero1 performs according to Vicis internal test, Browd is hopeful it will have a major impact on safety. He admits that its impossible to prevent all concussions, but he points to neurology literature that states a five percentage reduction in forcecan translate to a40 percent reduction in concussion danger. If numbers end up panning out, we think were going to significantly improve the safety of the sport, he says, adding: I dont think were reducing all force the head sees, but were reducing a substantial portion of the force that ends up being below the threshold that someone would sustain a concussion.

Right now, Vicis doesnt have any public contracts. The company has receivedmore than $10 million in funding, with $500,000 coming from the NFL. The company’sboard is confident it wont have any difficulty selling the helmets( which at $1,500 are four- to five-times that of an average helmet) to NFL squads next season. Eventually the goal is to get the cost down enough that the helmet can be adopted by younger players–a demographic with whichBrowd, a pediatric neurosurgeon, is all too familiar.

Browd also has afive year-old, who he says has taken those who are interested in the athletic. I asked if he’d deem letting his child play.With current helmets, Im not sure, he says. I believe with the Vicis helmet, if we sustain the performance improvements were hoping to achieve, I would feel comfy letting my son play because it sets health risks of the athletic back towards the median. Like any sport, football is never going to be 100 percent safe–but theres still plenty ofroom to make it safer.

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