Trying to design a football helmet that doesn't obstruct a player's movements? That's easy. Continue to stick with the general design that's been around since the 1970's. Or go back to the days when players essentially wore boxing gloves on their heads.
Trying to design a football helmet that looks cool? Not too difficult. You can even throw in some bedazzling if that's what you like.
Trying to design a football helmet that better protects the head from injury? This shouldn't be too challenging. Just build a gigantic structure that involves hundreds of pillows that houses a player's head. The player won't be able to move but the head will be safe.
Trying to design a helmet that does all three? Not so easy.
Form, function, and safety don't always mesh well together. Going lighter and less bulky can compromise protection of the head, an increasing concern given the concussions and head injuries occurring in the NFL. Padding the head extensively can make you look and play like Sponge Bob Square Pants. Focusing on fashion? Well, let's just say that nothing that you see on a catwalk would work on an American football field.
But a Seattle-based startup VICIS worked with Artefact to design a football helmet that has sought to blend all three things. An Artefact case studydescribes the ZERO1 football helmet as "safer, sexier and more functional." Who wouldn't want to be sexy, safe, and functional?
As you can see and hear, the researchers used computational modeling to help design the helmet.
Trying to jostle the brain on a computer sure beats doing it in real life.
The new technology has attracted a fair amount of attention from others, including the NFL. As of this August, VICIS had raised a total of $70 million with a recent $15 million from private investors, as reported by Derek Hall for the Seattle Times.
The VICIS team has the medical and engineering expertise but reached out to Artefact to further help with the design. Founded in 2006, Artefact is a Seattle-based product design company that focuses on human-centered design. In other words, they try to design products that not only meet the functional needs but also the emotional needs of users. After all, what's the point in designing a football helmet that can take a hit but isn't a hit among players?
This included making sure that the helmets don't "look stupid," confer enough confidence to the players, and feel comfortable. They also made the facemask and chin straps easy to remove in case a player gets injured but, of course, not too easy to remove.
The new design is off to a good start. The ZERO1 football helmet made the Time's list of 25 Best Inventions of 2017 and earned the top spot in the NFL's and NFL Player Association 2017 and 2018 helmet laboratory performance testing. Last season, over 60 NFL players donned the helmet including Seattle Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Doug Baldwin as well as the Washington Redskins' QB Alex Smith. Over 20 college football teams have signed on to use the helmet such as Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, and Texas A&M.
How much will this new design affect concussion and brain injury risk? Unclear.
The thought is that reducing the direct force to the head will reduce the amount of injury that the brain may sustain. However, more scientific studies and longer term follow-up would be helpful to get a better sense of the protection provided.
There is still much to learn about how different collisions may affect the brain and the development of conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For example, how can a helmet prevent the damage that may occur when the brain bounces around in the skull during rapid deceleration?
If you want to try the football helmet yourself to play or just to wear around the office or on a date, it isn't cheap. The ZERO1 football helmet was previously priced at $1,500, according to Barry Wilner writing for the Associated Press, but in January of this year, VICIS announced a price reduction to $950. Therefore, the primary market for now seems to be professional and major collegiate teams. On the other hand, wearing it on a date may show that you have the moolah. And the form, function, and safety.