Impact Sensors: A Missing Piece of Head Injury Programs
Another sensor that I like – although it is expensive ($150 per sensor, $200 for alert monitor) and may not work for those players who do not like the fit of a Riddell helmet – is Riddell’s InSite sensor, a thin template of plastic which fits inside its football helmets and connects to a full player management system. Backed by Riddell’s formidable research and marketing muscle as a leading football helmet manufacturer, the InSite, like other leading sensor systems, alerts the sideline to high magnitude impacts sustained by players. The InSite Player Management Software (ISPM) installs on both Windows and Mac computers and allows coaches and trainers to create and edit a team roster, add and manage Alert Monitor and Player Unit assignments, and review impact alert data downloaded from the alert monitors. Alert information can be reviewed and exported as an Excel file for further analysis.
Joining such established players in the crowded impact sensor field as Athlete Intelligence and Riddell, are some promising newcomers.
One is Tozuda, a Philadelphia-based start-up headed by Jessie Garcia, a former rugby player, which has just introduced to the market (via a Kickstarter campaign) what it touts as a simple, affordable, and tamper-proof impact sensor product designed to attach to any helmet or headgear and alert the sideline to impacts over 85 g’s (which studies show are the ones most likely to cause concussion). Armed with an advanced engineering degree and some patented technology, Jessie and her team have built a low-cost sensor which, instead of using expensive electronics, alerts the sideline to a high magnitude impact by releasing a simple, non-toxic mix of liquid and dye which changes in color from clear to red when an impact exceeds the 85g threshold.
Some other sensor products that have caught my eye are two mouthguard-based products: the Prevent Impact Monitor (IM) mouthguard and the FITGuard. Manufactured by Edina, Minnesota-based Prevent Biometrics, a Cleveland Clinic spinoff, the Prevent boil and bite mouthguard ($99) and custom-fabricated mouthguard ($299) are the product of seven years of research and development and were introduced to the commercial market in 2017. David Sigel, Chief Marketing Officer, told me in an email that there were a “number of aspects of the Prevent system that make it fundamentally superior to any other head impact monitoring technology that we are aware of,” first and foremost its accuracy. He asserted that the measurement accuracy and precision of other systems, particularly helmet-based systems, has been “very poor,” and argued that a sensor is not “useful at all if it can’t measure accurately and consistently,” saying it would “be like having a scale that tells you that you might weigh 120, or maybe 170, or it could be 200. What good would that be?”
According to Sigel, Prevent Biometrics’ mouthguard sensor has been validated to measure within +/- 10% accuracy — much better than 10% actually in most impact locations — in independent testing by leading test labs, not only measuring linear and angular acceleration accurately, but other key impact characteristics as well, including location, direction of the impact and impact count.
Another key distinguishing feature of the Prevent sensor system, according to Sigel, is that it is a complete system that makes the technology easy for athletic organizations and teams to implement and operate. “The IM Mouthguard connects via Bluetooth with our Team App, giving sideline personnel real-time visibility into impacts, and above threshold impacts that may require concussion assessment, right on an iPad or iPhone. All of the data then syncs to the cloud and detailed analytics are available in a web portal. Having accurate, detailed data available on an organization, team or player level really allows coaches to see opportunities for individual athletes to play safer, and instruct them accordingly. Finally, we have a charging case that wirelessly charges and sanitizes the mouthguard, and a team case that does that for up to 27 mouthguards at once.”
To this point, said Sigel, the Prevent mouthguards have only been sold to researchers, and the company is only at the very beginning of introducing it to teams, “so it’s premature to talk about challenges we’ve encountered.” Nevertheless, he said one challenge the company faced was that while it was providing “incredibly valuable wearable technology, … it requires some behavior change by teams and players. For instance, a lot of players like to cut their mouthguards down, or chew on them constantly. Obviously, chewing on a device with over 100 electrical components embedded in it doesn’t work really well. It’s kind of like when smart phones came out. Your iPhone is amazing, but you can’t drop it, swim with it or abuse it! Further, teams and athletic trainers need to get used to having this data available, and incorporating it into their operations.” While the “Prevent system provides incredibly insightful, and potentially transformational information, it’s information that was never before available, at least not with any reliability. They’re going to have to re-think how they do things, as they would with any new source of sophisticated data.”
As for the FITGuard, co-founder Bob Merriman said bringing it to market “has been a 5-year labor of love to get things right.” Testing in 2017 with Arizona State University’s athletic department yielded what he characterized as “terrific results (quality data, all core competencies demonstrated, positive feedback from athletes).” Based on the feedback from that beta testing, the company made some improvements to fit and charging efficiency, but the changes, even though they did not directly involve the sensor technology, will require another round of validation testing.
Merriman reported that design work was completed and that the first units would be manufactured in August 2018. “We hope to conclude lab testing in September and then conduct another round of field testing with athletes again this fall. If the testing results in good data validity, we plan to have units ready for sale in early 2019,” he said. “As a parent myself, it’s absolutely critical to us that we develop a solution that I’d be comfortable with my own kids wearing,” Merriman stated.