That an individual inventor could develop, produce, and deliver a product into the hands of professional athletes speaks to the upheaval in the world of helmet manufacturing. What was once a rather staid industry dominated by a few large companies has now grown to include an increasing number of upstart firms, serial entrepreneurs, and individual inventors. The result has been a proliferation of new designs. Mainstream helmet makers have stuck with variations on previous models: polycarbonate shells filled with various densities and thicknesses of padding. Newcomers have developed more creative, albeit less rigorously tested, approaches. Perhaps the best-known is the bizarre-looking Guardian Cap, a padded sock that slips over a typical helmet. Another approach that received a lot of attention in 2011, the Bulwark, came from the workbench of an aerospace engineer and self-professed “helmet geek” in North Carolina; it had a modular shell that could be configured to match the demands of different players. It never made it out of prototype stage.
For his part, Simpson officially launched his SGH helmet in October 2012 to immediate fanfare. Sports Illustrated “injury expert” columnist Will Carroll tugged one on and had someone whack him over the crown of the head—a strong, almost purely linear force. He reported not feeling much at all. His conclusion: This helmet must work.
When I called Simpson to discuss the helmet and ask how it reduces the forces responsible for concussion, he mentioned that none of the neuroscientists he’s spoken with have been able to tell him what forces actually cause a concussion. “How do you know you’re stopping the right forces, then?” I asked him. “If you don’t know what’s causing a concussion, how can you prevent it?”
“You’re asking me a lot of questions that are pretty off the wall, my friend,” he said. “A lot of questions I can’t answer.” He explained that his helmet uses a composite shell made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, plus an inner layer of adaptive foam made of Styrofoam-like beads. It performs better in a NOCSAE-style drop test than anything else on the market, he said.
“Does it specifically address rotational acceleration?” I asked.
He laughed. “No helmet does that.”
I tried a more direct approach: “Can you make claims about concussion reduction with your helmet?”
“Oh, hell no,” he said, “I would never make a claim about that.”
The NFL, at least since Congress took an interest, has gotten serious about sorting out who is claiming what—or not. “There is not a week that passes that I don’t see a new device,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina sports medicine researcher and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who also chairs the NFL’s Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules. “There’s a binder weighing down the corner of my desk. I don’t think you’re going to see the NFL flat-out endorsing a product, but they certainly feel that they’re responsible for trying to help prevent these injuries. So we’re going to be reviewing these technologies in order to say, here are three or four that need to be studied further.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.