As sports-related concussions work their way into the national conversation, one team of University of Arizona researchers—including Arizona Wildcat linebacker Jason Sweet—is teaching players to recognize and report the signs.
Concussions are the center of attention in the sports world these days, and despite new concussion-management protocols in both the NCAA and the NFL, many student-athletes still either don’t recognize concussion symptoms, or won’t report them if they do.
The creators of BrainGainz, a virtual reality app that allows users to experience the symptoms of concussion firsthand, hope to change that.
Ricardo Valerdi, associate professor of systems engineering at the University of Arizona, is one such creator.
Valerdi, joined by Hirsch Handmaker and Jonathan Lifshitz at the UA College of Medicine–Phoenix, is developing the app for the NCAA’s Mind Matters Challenge, part of a $30 million joint initiative with the U.S. Department of Defense to educate student-athletes and soldiers on concussion.
As one of four finalists in the Mind Matters Challenge, the BrainGainz team will present their prototype to NCAA officials in Indianapolis on February 5. If the app is selected as the winner, it will be made available to some 400,000 NCAA student-athletes across the nation.
The BrainGainz prototype is compatible with iPhone and Android and uses Google Cardboard, a foldout virtual reality headset with a $10 price tag.
Valerdi is collaborating with Tech Launch Arizona, the office at the UA that brings inventions from the lab to the market, to develop a path forward for this technology and expand it to other NCAA sports like baseball and soccer.
With smartphones slipped inside of the cardboard headset, users of BrainGainz find themselves standing on the AstroTurf in Arizona Stadium, the likeness of which was carefully captured by strapping cameras on a drone and taking aerial shots.
Users first practice punt returns with a virtual teammate. Their response time and vision are normal. Later, after being tackled by Arizona Wildcat football players like linebackers Jason Sweet and Scooby Wright, users have a choice to make: Recover, or get back in the game.
Sweet is a molecular and cellular biology major, and Wright recently announced he will enter this year’s NFL draft, where he is expected to be a top pick. Both have collaborated on the app since its inception.
Sweet says athletes instinctively “want to compete and stay in the game” and believes that to change this, the app must not only be educational; it’s got to be cool.
“How are we going to make this appealing to college football players? How are we going to improve education?” asked Sweet, rhetorically. “We’re going to make the coolest, most intense, most realistic educational virtual reality app ever. That’s our goal.”
The stakes are high. Staying-in-the-game mentality “results in underreporting of head blows, which can lead to serious short- and long-term consequences from a second concussion—known as secondary impact syndrome, or SIS—before the brain has been allowed to heal," said Handmaker.
“A concussion can change your life, and this is a public health issue. We need to better inform athletes, coaches, trainers, and parents on how to identify a concussion,” said Valerdi.