Commentary

Technology will always play role

Updated: September 4, 2009, 4:22 PM ET
By Jeremy Willis | ESPN.com

It's a rainy day on a high school campus, but that hasn't stopped the football team from shuttling through drills. The players aren't getting their cleats muddy or taking over the basketball court. At this high school, the coaches are running through scrimmages in a virtual reality simulator.

No sci-fi football movie here: This third-person game is about to become a first-person, immersed virtual reality experience and could be coming to a football team in the near future, said Albert Tsai, vice president for advanced research at XOS Technologies.

XOS' first offering, the Thunder PlayAction Simulator, was a video-game-style practice tool that allowed coaches to upload plays and players to practice on a computer with controls that mirror some of the popular football video games on the market. Designed with EA Sports, the product is currently being used at the University of Arizona, LSU and the University of Oregon.

Currently it would take an entire facility with a motion-capture studio to replicate the player's movements as well as computer processing fast enough to track the action in real time. But, as the technology gets faster and more manageable, this could become an available practice tool.

"What [video-game companies] have shown at the latest gaming conventions, where they have the ability to track a player without all the overhead, that's when you'll really see this stuff take off," Tsai said.

Think "Wii Sports," but instead of making a tiny character good at golf or tennis, a coach is getting his quarterback ready for the BCS title game, all without leaving the office.

How could a tech-savvy coach benefit? He could get an endless supply of live action, game-play scenarios available at the click of a mouse, practice with less risk of injury, or just avoid practice altogether during weather hazards. The days of players plopping down to watch endless hours of film could be coming to an end.

While virtual reality may soon allow teams to practice smarter, technology has its biggest impact on making the game safer. Much like football coaches who borrow ideas and philosophies, so too do the people in the business of protecting the players.

An 8-year-old's head is just as important as an NFL quarterback's head.

-- Xenith founder Vin Ferrara

"When we find technologies that can help the game of football, we'll use them."

That's what D.J. MacLean, a 17-year veteran at Schutt Sports, said about the ever-changing landscape for equipment.

"The greatest stuff as far as technology is concerned comes from the military and from NASA," said Mark Monica, who founded Impact Protective Equipment.

Monica borrowed ideas about synthetic and heat-reflecting materials from NASA when he designed his line of lighter shoulder pads. He also used these materials to keep players cooler.

Because head injuries are a primary concern, designers are constantly looking for ways to incorporate technology to make helmets safer.

"An 8-year-old's head is just as important as an NFL quarterback's head," said Vin Ferrara, whose Xenith X1 helmet employs shock absorbers and technology that resembles car air bags.

The Xenith helmet, the Riddell Revolution, and the Schutt DNA and ION helmets all incorporate new technology designed to reduce the incidence of concussions. New jaw pads, additional shock absorbers to the facemask and the interior of the pad have been added and the helmets have been engineered by examining the force behind the hits at all level of play. That doesn't mean, however, that these helmets are making players completely safe.

"I don't think it'll ever be possible to have a concussion-proof piece of equipment," warns Thad Ide, Riddell's vice president of research and development.

[+] EnlargeXenith X1 Helmet
XenithHelmets that can be worn for a player's entire career could be the next phase of equipment.

What's next in technology to help mitigate head injuries?

Ferrara sees the new football gear as intelligent pieces of equipment, "active preventative devices." He predicts sensors to register impact and even alert medical personnel.

To some degree, Ferrara's prediction has already come true. Riddell's IQ HITS helmet monitors the number and severity of hits and tracks them on software.

Beyond sensors, new pads and helmets are coming that are designed to be the first and last piece of equipment a player wears. According to Ferrara, it's likely that the next phase would be a "one player, one helmet" type of equipment that would be with a player for his career and therefore eliminate problems with improper fitting and allow for a comprehensive record of protection.

Whatever technology holds for the future, it will always come down to whether that advancement can protect a football player.

"You want to produce a product that you know the player's going to be safe in because you're talking about people's lives and people's careers," Monica said.

Jeremy Willis is a general editor for ESPN.com.