Dr Alan Pearce is a neuroscientist heavily involved in concussion research and education. Braden Wilson is an industrial designer and tech entrepreneur. Together with Samsung, they have developed the brainBAND, an accessible wearable technology designed to facilitate research into concussion in sports.
The prototype has been developed through Samsung’s Mixed Talents program, an initiative that brings together two experts from different backgrounds to demonstrate how technology can investigate and help solve real challenges facing society. We spoke with Dr Pearce and Braden Wilson about the project.
"I look at concussions from a neurophysiological perspective," Dr Pearce told Gizmodo. "What are the mechanisms that make that happen? Why is it that one person can be apparently fine, and another player is really struggling to know where they are? What is happening in terms of impact forces that might contribute to those things? My imput is to give Braden the knowledge that we have surrounding the mechanisms for head injuries."
The brainBAND tracks impacts to the head in contact sports in real-time, with the aim to use this data to better understand concussion in sport and the ongoing impact on the brain.
Concussion is a growing societal issue in Australia with most incidences going unreported as symptoms are hard to see. Unlike traditional head gear designed to protect the head in contact sports, brainBAND is designed to gather information regarding an impact in real-time -- a first in Australia.
In the prototype, a specially designed headband houses sensors at the back of the head that measure the force of an impact. This information would then be relayed via an app to medics, referees and coaches, all in real-time through the use of Samsung devices.
A series of LED lights embedded in the headband indicate the level of impact of a hit: yellow, orange and red for high alert, meaning a player should be taken off the field for assessment.
All impact data will be recorded and logged so that, over time, players could obtain a more complete picture of the forces their brain has been put under.
"The ultimate goal is that by understanding the dangers of repeated concussions, brainBAND may help prevent life changing injuries at every level of the game, and protect the next generation of players," said Dr. Pearce.
The data collected is also designed for long-term research. "We want to build up a database of "player passports", so we can have a history of the impacts a player has received," Dr Pearce said. "It's useful for doctors, and even for players changing clubs. And of course, for researchers to access with voluntary consent and players remaining anonymous."
Australian footballer Israel Folau was the first to trial the prototype, saying "I think it’d be great if every player in Australia had access to this kind of technology to make contact sports safer for current and future generations."
The development team want to ensure the brainBAND is seen as a no-brainer rather than a big decision.
"We need to have something that is accessible to clubs -- and not just the big clubs," Dr Pearce emphasises. "At a local level, where they don't have the luxury of a suite of medics like they do at elite levels, if a player does take a hit the coach can make the call to take him to the hospital -- and this data can be given to the doctor."
"There's no difference between concussions at professional or amateur level. They might not be as built, but they still hit each other. It's exactly the same. But the smaller clubs don't have the resources to address the issue."
It's not just footballers being targeted with the tech. "There's so much potential for what we can do with it," said Wilson. "It's waterproof, induction charged, we've had interest from surfers -- there's various form factors we can look for with the band, it's quite low cost."
"We are aiming to create a cultural change with understanding around concussion and respect and awareness around the injury," added Dr Pearce.
One of the challenges for Dr Pearce and Wilson was to design a device that players would actually want to wear. "We needed to create something that people would embrace, because you've got such a stoic audience in football players -- particularly at an elite level," Wilson told Gizmodo. "I was really concerned it might be something that would be seen as a gimmick or thrown to the sideline -- I didn't want to create something that would target people as a sign of weakness."
He says an epiphany came when going for a run. "I realised it had to be seen as like a crown or a wreath -- a symbol of strength instead of a bandage or a sign of weakness. We don't want guys being targeted because they are wearing this device. We want it to fit into their environment as is as normal as putting on your boots."
Wilson says having input from Dr Pearce was invaluable to the design process. "Instead of something that was just a fancy piece of tech, Alan's input gave us the confidence to articulate what we were trying to achieve," he told Gizmodo.
"Usually we would try and find the tools to do our research, rather than actually being involved tangibly with developing something that we really want," Dr Pearce added. "At the same time we get designers doing stuff without necessarily engaging with the scientists -- invariably they will miss some of the key elements we would need."
"As a designer there is a lot of assumptions that we have to make," Wilson explained. "And you try to speak to someone relevant -- but to have the information come directly from Alan is invaluable."
There are eight countries involved in the global Mixed Talents initiative, all focusing on issues that relate to their society. In Italy, it is phone usage by scooter and bike riders. In China they are looking at jaywalking. South Africa is focusing on unemployment and South America is targeting Education. In Australia, the focus is concussion in sport.