Harvard women building a smarter soccer ball
Kick a ball, power a lamp, light up the world. At its core, that’s what Soccket is, a regulation-sized soccer ball with a fist-sized technology pack tucked inside that produces and stores a small but dynamic electrical charge.
The ball rolls, charging a tiny battery with each rotation, and ultimately the round objet d’art of the world’s most widely played sport builds up with enough juice to run an LED lamp for 72 hours.
“That’s the max charge,’’ noted Soccket’s lead techie, Victor Angel, a 25-year-old engineering graduate of Boston University. “What we typically tell people is that 30 minutes of playing with it yields enough energy for about three hours of light. To get 72 hours, it requires a full charge of 16 hours.
“We just don’t want people to think they have to be out there playing soccer for 16 hours to make it work.’’
Soccket is the brainchild of two 2010 Harvard alums, Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman, neither of whom majored in engineering in their undergraduate days. Matthews, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Silverman, from Chicago, enrolled in an engineering class for non-engineers (Engineering Sciences 147) during their junior year and were tasked with designing a multiplayer game that would address a world development issue.
The project immediately led the two women to a hamster ball — the squishy, foamy, grapefruit-sized playtoy of pet rodents around the planet. Matthews and Silverman slipped a shake-to-charge flashlight inside the ball, booted it around campus like a couple of Revolution All-Stars and, voila, they had at their toes a prototype energy source good for bringing small but nonetheless important units of electrical energy to some of the darkest, most remote corners of the world.
Pelé may be the Black Pearl of soccer, but non-athletes Matthews and Silverman one day may be remembered as the game’s Crimson Diamonds.
“When you see kids play with Soccket for the first time, it’s surreal,’’ said Angel, who grew up in Mexico, where, once outside of Mexico City, access to electricity is often intermittent or nonexistent. “We took it to Tlaquepaque [about three hours east of Mexico City] for a pilot program, and the kids [ages 7-12] loved it.
“They were quick to engage. They know soccer, so there’s that playful aspect to it from the start. And then they see how it powers the light, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow!’ ’’
One of the kids, recalled Angel, initially thought Soccket might be an instructional tool to teach the blind how to play soccer. Another child, upon finally understanding how the technology and lithium ion battery worked, suggested it could be applied to roller skates to generate a similar charge.
“It’s inspiring,’’ said Angel, “to see how people take to innovation with such a creative mind-set.’’
The Soccket ball has come a long way from its humble hamster roots, thanks to Angel’s handiwork and the constant urgings of Matthews and Silverman to improve their product. The current iteration, tech pack included, is a mere 2 ounces heavier than a standard 15-ounce soccer ball.
The Sockett’s skin is made of vinyl, much like most soccer balls, but the inside is stuffed with two types of foam fabric. The spongy foam protects the tech pack and, unlike conventional air-inflated balls, allows the game to keep rolling along if the ball is punctured.
“In design, we try to be conscious of many things,’’ said Angel. “A conventional ball, which has an air bladder, probably would be punctured and tossed in a landfill in two months or less. The Soccket, because of the foam core, lasts a lot longer.’’
The most significant difference between the Soccket ball and the traditional one is the bounce. The density of the foam diminishes the ball’s hop. Less boing, less bounce. But Angel and his two tech co-workers are working diligently to give it some giddyup.
“We need to improve that bounce,’’ mused Angel, who discovered Soccket via YouTube while at BU, and says he became “obsessive’’ about joining the company, now headquartered in lower Manhattan. “The bounce is a challenge, but I think we’ll get very close.’’
Matthews and Silverman, now enrolled in the Harvard Business School, in recent months stepped up efforts to add to Soccket’s financing. Late last week, through a Kickstarter crowd-funding effort, they were some $31,000 shy of their pledge goal of $75,000. If they can hit the number, they can increase production, spread Soccket to remote corners of the world, places such as Vietnam or Thailand or other parts of southeast Asia where connecting to an electrical source can mean maybe a five-hour journey on foot.
The handcrafted balls are produced on Long Island, in Bohemia, N.Y., and thus far some 2,500 have been distributed in Mexico and here in the US in pilot programs in Chicago and Newark.
They’ve also been delivered for trials in Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa.
The surface of the ball incorporates a small plastic flip cap, about the size of a US quarter, that covers the electrical socket for the LED lamp to connect. The lamp’s cord is fitted with a tiny plug, identical in size and shape to the plug that connects headphones to iPhones, portable CD players, and the like.
“We specifically didn’t want it to look like a wall socket,’’ said Angel. “We didn’t want people trying to plug in a blender or other household appliances.’’
The Soccket also has an adapter plug to charge an iPhone4. Conceivably, a 30-minute pickup game in the African bush could be the ticket to an Internet hookup via smartphone. A connection to the Whiner Line or “Toucher and Rich” in places no one ever imagined. Such miracles.
The ball-and-lamp kits are not yet available for purchase at retail outlets. Alison Dalton Smith, director of communications for Uncharted Play, maker of Soccket, said the ball one day should be available to the masses online, or in a specialty store such as Brookstone. It’s currently available via a $99 pledge made through kickstarter.com
Angel not long ago made a trip to Brazil to help roll out a Soccket pilot program. One of the stops, as expected, found a group of kids, many of them barefoot, eagerly waiting to play on a sun-baked dirt field.
“A field full of rocks, broken glass, not level at all . . . conditions you cannot imagine,’’ said Angel. “But kids will always find a way to play, no matter what the conditions. There’s no stopping them. That’s the great thing.’’
Give a kid a ball, he’ll play for a day, maybe longer. Give a kid a little power and a chance to dream, and there’s no telling how far that ball will take him.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Soccket was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.