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Health care

Virtual reality gets into the game against concussions

Several college football teams adopt Boston-based SyncThink’s diagnostic technology.

These are new football helmets that were given to a group of youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League in Akron, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. These youth football players from low income families, are among thousands nationwide who benefit from a youth safety and helmet replacement program, partially sponsored by the NFL, to improve player safety. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
SyncThink’s main product is used by several college football programs, including Stanford, Notre Dame, and Clemson.

They might be the most vexing problem in sports, their impact so widely recognized that they were the centerpiece of a Will Smith flick. Now, a small Boston company, working in the shadow of the TD Garden, is trying to make it easier to diagnose and treat concussions.

Its name is SyncThink, and its work is based on technology and research developed at Stanford University. SyncThink’s tool of choice is the virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Rift, which the company buys and refurbishes to track athletes’ eye movements as they follow a red dot traversing a black background. If the athlete struggles to do so after a big hit, it may be a sign that he or she has a concussion. And if the difficulty persists days or weeks later, it may mean things aren’t getting much better. Eye movement is considered one of the most objective ways to diagnose a concussion.

The company’s main product is used by several college football programs, including Stanford, Notre Dame, and Clemson. SyncThink is now aiming at high school sports programs as well as the pros.

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But sports aren’t the only use. The company got its start through projects it conducted with the Department of Defense. Late last year, SyncThink partnered with large companies like Shire and Microsoft to develop technology. And the company is thinking even bigger. Chief technology officer Daniel Beeler says attention-tracking technology could help ensure occupational safety standards at work. Eye-tracking data could also appeal to advertisers as virtual reality gaming and entertainment take off.

Adam Vaccaro is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.