By DANNY O'NEIL
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The helmet hangs from the ceiling and contains a bowling ball, which is remarkably similar to the human head in both mass and shape.
This is the blunt object in the collision test. A battering ram.
It's what is inside the helmet it collides with that is really important. Specifically, the mouthpiece inside the crash-test dummy skull. The standard piece of sports equipment has been loaded with micro electronics and local ingenuity to the point it could fundamentally change the understanding and management of head injuries in athletics.
Welcome to the "Smash Lab" at X2 Impact, a Seattle startup company that has developed and is testing a new way to see just what is going on inside an athlete's head during a collision.
There's nothing special about the material of the mouthpiece in the dummy. It's similar to what athletes at all levels buy over the counter. It's the 50 or so pieces of miniature electronics equipment inside, everything from sensors to microprocessors to radio transceivers, that makes it special.
Worn like a standard mouthpiece, it is mounted upon the upper teeth, with those sensors tuned to describe the force of an impact felt inside the head at those points where concussions and other trauma can occur.
"That allows us to get, not similar, but exactly accurate readings of what's happening inside your skull," said Christoph Mack, president and co-founder of X2.
That constitutes a breakthrough.
There have been sensors affixed to helmets before, measuring the impact of a hit, but that doesn't tell you what's really important for the athlete, namely the force of the impact felt inside the head where the brain is. That impact is affected by everything from the body's musculature to whether the athlete saw the hit coming and braced for contact.
There isn't a bigger topic in football right now than concussions, from the immediate symptoms to the long-term effects to the hits that cause them.
The mouthpiece doesn't present itself as a solution to concussions. It doesn't purport to diagnose them, either, but it provides something that is essential: data that can be communicated wirelessly to the sidelines. That information can be used immediately, helping a trainer identify players who might need to be evaluated.
From a researcher's perspective, the data will provide a window to understanding not only the specific types of hits that cause brain injuries, but the history of hits that preceded those injuries.
The product is being field- tested, and X2 has been in discussions with an NFL team. The plan is for the first team model to be available in the fall of 2011 with individual mouthpieces available after that.
"This tool is intended to keep kids in the game, playing safe," Mack said.
This is the result of years of thought and months of testing to design a consumer-grade mouthpiece capable of measuring the impact of a collision as accurately as high-end sensors used in aerospace.
That brings us back to the smash lab, the bowling ball and the crash-test dummy referred to as "the shizzle." That's shorthand for simulated human skull. The dummy is outfitted with aerospace sensors that cost thousands of dollars.
"This is an information-awareness tool," Mack said. "What we're hoping to do is provide accurate, real-time data to coaches, trainers, parents and athletes to support proper management of head impact and concussion in sports."
Those sports go way beyond football and hockey. The highest rate of concussions in college athletics? Women's soccer.
The immediate benefit is that the mouthpiece would allow someone monitoring on the sideline to see in real time not only the magnitude of hits, but the frequency. If one player is sustaining extensive impact it could signal a problem with technique, possibly leading with his head.
Former Seahawks coach Jim Mora is an investor with the company, and X2 has received guidance and input from some of the top doctors with respect to sports concussions.
The goal isn't to take players off the field. It is to provide accurate information about the level of impact players have sustained. It can assuage fears over a collision that might have looked bad, but actually wasn't so severe, and on those occasions when the level of impact exceeds a designated threshold, it can indicate which player might warrant further evaluation.
Rich Able is one of the co-founders of X2 and vice president of business development. He worked in the medical-device field for about 14 years. He had three sons, all of whom played high-school football. Kyle suffered a concussion while playing for Bellarmine Prep as a sophomore in 2007. He was knocked unconscious, removed from the game by the coach and sent to a hospital, where he underwent a CT scan that diagnosed a concussion.
In Kyle's case, being knocked unconscious prompted a rigorous evaluation.
An impact-sensing mouthguard makes it possible to see the level of impact in a specific collision. A player doesn't have to lose consciousness for a coach, trainer or parent to see the hit warranted further diagnosis.
They just have to look at the sideline monitor, which, thanks to X2's mouthpiece, could show exactly what happened to an athlete's head.