For more than 50 years, the design of football helmets has remained largely the same. Thousands of NFL players over the past few decades have worn the familiar helmet with its hard outer shell and thick padding on the inside. But now innovators are looking to new football helmet technology in light of mounting evidence that repeated concussions while playing football can lead to serious brain injury, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
NFL players, league officials, scientists, and advocates are looking to new football helmet technology designs to combat the growing concern over repeated head trauma.
One such company looking to make football safer for players is Seattle startup VICIS. The company is currently testing and refining a helmet called the Zer01, which features multiple layers made to reduce impact forces.
“The ZERO1’s multiple layers work together to slow impact forces,” the VICIS website says. “The helmet features a soft outer shell and an underlying layer of columns designed to mitigate collisions from multiple directions.”
VICIS was founded and is run by neurosurgeons, engineers, former NFL team physicians, and scientists. The main challenge of making a revolutionary new helmet is providing protection to players while creating a durable product that can withstand repeated hits.
“We’re trying to slow down this energy over about an inch and a half,” said VICIS cofounder and neurosurgeon Sam Browd to CNN in September. “This product has to absorb the energy and then be ready to do it again a couple milliseconds later. It’s been a very significant engineering challenge to overcome some of those obstacles to end up where we’re at now.”
VICIS Still Working Out New Football Helmet Technology Kinks
Since the NFL was sued by former players and reached a $1 billion settlement related to concussions, it has been researching ways to make the game safer for players. VICIS won some funding from the NFL through its Head Health Challenge but has raised millions on its own since 2014.
The company is currently working to fulfill helmet orders for a number of NFL teams and collegiate programs.
In August, VICIS pulled its helmets from use by the University of Washington and University of Oregon football teams after complaints of comfort and fit from players. Issues arose with the chinstrap not staying in place and pressure from the helmet causing headaches.
In a blog post on the VICIS site in December, cofounder and CEO Dave Marver wrote a positive update on the status of the helmet after working out some of the issues.
“Our partners helped us identify elements we could improve and we’re grateful for the experience,” Marver wrote. “We can now offer a better helmet than existed last summer. It’s a helmet that performs extremely well, is comfortable, and brings an x-factor — when impacted it just feels better than hard shell helmets.”
The Zer01 helmet is expected to be part of the NFL’s helmet testing in the upcoming months with results published not long after.
Q-Collar Offers Another Potential Solution to Concussions
While the VICIS helmet is more in line with current helmet designs, the Q-Collar is a completely new design from Q30 Innovations aimed at reducing concussions. The Q-Collar is a c-shaped collar that uses human physiology to protect the skull instead of external protection like padding.
The collar lightly constricts the jugular to increase blood pressure in the head and provide natural cushioning from impact. A 2015 study on high school football players with and without the Q-Collar discovered positive findings on the effectiveness of the product.
“These groundbreaking studies show that wearing the device appears to reduce injury to the brain resulting from sports-related blows to the head,” Tom Hoey, Co-Founder of Q30 Innovations, said in a statement in June. “These are important findings that warrant continued research of this potential major advance in reducing the occurrence of brain injury, not only in sports, but also for the military and industrial settings.”
Other wearable technologies designed to study the effects of impacts are becoming more prevalent in football, which comes after years of the NFL denying any link between CTE and football.
With the focus on player safety and health, new football helmet technology will likely continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping the league going forward.