Ben Harvatine couldn’t point to a single time that his head slammed hard against the wrestling mat. He just felt progressively worse over the course of a practice at MIT.
“I’d had concussions before, but this one felt really different,” Harvatine says. “I couldn’t talk right, and was having trouble walking. But like every athlete, you find ways to rationalize it — maybe you’re just dehydrated.”
Harvatine was hospitalized twice, and says his memories of the fall semester of 2010 “are really few and far between.” But in the spring, feeling better, he took a class about sensors — and started designing a prototype of protective wrestling headgear that could collect data on impacts to the head.
Since then, several startups, as well as big companies like Reebok, the Canton sports apparel maker, and Illinois helmet manufacturer Riddell, have spotted the same opportunity, developing wearable technologies capable of quantifying crunches, hits, and head bonks in a wide range of sports, with the goal of preventing concussions. But none is yet used widely in amateur or professional sports.
When I asked Reebok executive Paul Litchfield about the company’s $150 CheckLight cap, introduced in mid-2013, he noted the product has won awards and “people love it,” but acknowledged they weren’t buying it. “We have got, I will say respectfully, anemic sales,” Litchfield told me in October.
So if parents, coaches, and professional leagues are so concerned about concussions — and the long-term effects of lesser hits — why aren’t these products taking off?
This wave of wearables relies on some of the same components in your smartphone — namely, gyroscopes and accelerometers — to determine how an athlete’s head moves through space and when that movement stops or changes direction abruptly. Since everyone knows there’s a problem when a player is laid out flat, these devices try to collect data about less dramatic collisions that may add up to a problem.
Reebok’s CheckLight cap, developed with the Cambridge electronics startup MC10, is worn under a helmet. It has green, yellow, and red lights on a “tail” that sits against the back of a player’s neck. When yellow or red illuminates, that means a player should be checked by a coach or doctor.
Riddell’s $150 InSite Impact Response System, unveiled in 2013, sends data about hits to a $200 hand-held device used by sideline personnel. It is being used by about 200 youth, high school, and college football programs, according to spokeswoman Erin Griffin.
But awareness of the technology is low. “There isn’t a ton of information out there, especially at the youth coaching levels,” says James Koloski, a youth lacrosse coach in Rhode Island whose sons play hockey and lacrosse.
“I haven’t seen any of it,” says Glenn Merkosky, a former National Hockey League player, current scout, and sometime youth hockey coach.
Unlike many technologies, where you might want to be the first on your block to own the new video game console or tablet computer, there’s a disincentive to being first in this case. “You can imagine one kid on a team showing up with this technology, and being seen as a momma’s boy,” says Mike Troiano, a marketing executive at Waltham data management company Actifio, who played football at Cornell.
What about the pros? Merkosky, a forward who played with the Hartford Whalers and Detroit Red Wings, says most professional athletes “just don’t want to be taken out of the game. I know of instances where players won’t tell the trainer they’ve been hit — and they definitely won’t suggest that they took a hit to the head.”
Litchfield, Reebok’s vice president of advanced concepts, concedes that even amid headlines about concussions and degenerative brain disease affecting retired National Football League players, people in sports don’t like to dwell on the possibility of injuries. The attitude is, “Let’s not talk about it, and maybe it won’t happen,” he says.
So how do manufacturers get this technology adopted more broadly? Litchfield says one possibility is leagues at various levels could require teams to collect data about hits to the head, as a way of reducing concussions and other injuries. Parents could push schools and youth leagues to use the technology, Troiano suggests, and perhaps help raise money to purchase it.
But manufacturers may also need better data showing that monitoring collisions is effective at preventing concussions, says Julie Soriero, MIT’s director of athletics. “We want the data to be a little bit more conclusive,” Soriero says.
In 2013, Harvatine, the former MIT wrestler, started a company called Jolt Sensor to create a monitoring product for use in a wide range of sports. “In high school, I played football, soccer, baseball, and wrestling,” he says, “I had a lot of days where I was going from one practice to the next, or one game to the next, so I felt there was a lot of value in something that would work in any sport.”
Jolt’s $99 device looks like a chubby money clip and can be affixed to a headband, hat, or helmet. It relays data wirelessly to a mobile phone or tablet. Jolt, based in St. Louis, plans to start selling the devices this year.
Harvatine says that perhaps the last people to embrace these wearable devices will be the players traveling to Phoenix this week for the Super Bowl.
But he envisions a world where kids grow up with the technology, and as they’re heading out to practice or play, “It’s a natural thing to say, ‘Don’t forget your shin guards, your mouth guards, and your Jolt sensor.’ ”Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.