Category Archives: Machines and Equipment

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Villanova, MLB Team Eye Virtual Reality Training for Batters and Catchers

Imagine you’re at home plate, your bat lifted behind your shoulder. You eye the pitcher as he sets up, carefully paying attention to not just the sights that play into the timing of your swing, but the sounds, too.
Researchers at Villanova believe those audiovisual cues will set apart the next generation of players. And this spring, the Villanova Wildcat baseball team will begin using a new virtual reality training system designed by Dr. Mark Jupina, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. The VR system matches batters and catchers against some of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, but it’s intended use stretches far beyond just a virtual batting machine.
The system, dubbed PITCHvr, can pull in data from the MLB pitch database. (Its name was inspired by the PITCHf/x system that was used through 2016, and has since been replaced by TrackMan.) Jupina has used this data to recreate the motions of a pitched ball, such as its path, velocity, orientation, and spin. From this perspective, PITCHvr is not unlike other VR pitching platforms that have come in the past, such as Diamond FX, a virtual reality player performance and scouting tool that uses recreated pitches and sports vision to give baseball players extra reps.
What sets PITCHvr apart, however, is the addition of audio tags that help to not only train eyes but also ears as batters, catchers, and umpires prepare for pitches in the real world. Jupina’s algorithm generates a unique audio signature for each virtual pitch. When this audio is played alongside the pitch, the sound can assist users’ eyes in tracking the motion of the baseball.

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As the Wildcats are preparing to use this system during their upcoming season, MLB teams are also becoming interested in the technology. At least one team so far has expressed a desire to use it for 2019 spring training, although Villanova declined to provide the name of the team since negotiations are ongoing.
Jupina, who played baseball through high school and coached for 11 years, leaned heavily for PITCHvr’s development on Wildcats head baseball coach Kevin Mulvey, a former standout pitcher for Villanova who reached the major leagues with the New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, and Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Jupina had the science and engineering background to build the complex algorithms that power PITCHvr, Mulvey offered the real-world experience of professional baseball and insight into how the system would best benefit his players.
To date the system has been primarily tested in Villanova’s room-sized virtual reality CAVE space, an 18-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep, and 7.5-foot high enclosure that provides immersive 3D experiences. But the system has also been adapted for the HTC Vive headset (the same headset that launched DiamondFX), which is the version that’ll be used in-season by the Wildcats and possibly by professional teams.
Whether stepping into the CAVE or donning a Vive headset, users are met with some of MLB’s top pitchers, including the Astros’ Justin Verlander, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber. Jupina even recreated Astros’ Lance McCullers’s nasty knuckle-curveball, which helped to deliver Houston an American League championship and World Series win in 2017.
(Courtesy of Villanova)
“I recreated the same exact pitch in this virtual enforcement and they matched up well,” said Jupina. “That gave me the confidence that this looked accurate and realistic and began working with [Villanova head coach] Kevin to verify things.”
With the infrastructure now in place, Jupina is eyeing a range of other use cases for his system. In the future, pitches generated by PITCHvr could be made even faster and nastier than pitches thrown to date, which would help to further hone users’ audio and visual tracking instincts and possibly translate to more hits from the plate.
Jupina also is planning PITCHvr adaptations for specific positions, such as for catchers, umpires, and batters. He projects these updates will be ready for use over the next half-year. From there, the school could be able to explore potential licensing opportunities as well.
“I can see applications of a catcher or an umpire and have talked to the MLB office in charge of umpire development,” he said. “We could come up with an app where a person would try to catch the ball and the system would detect when their hands closed on the ball.”
The next step (and something Villanova researchers and students are already working on) is to use additional sensors and imaging technology to provide analytics on the bat’s motion and swing, enabling players to obtain metrics such as launch angle, velocity of the batted ball and distance traveled.
“Current trackers aren’t really sufficient … you need to use other types of sensors,” said Jupina.
Future iterations of the technology might integrate neurofeedback to read a users’ focus and stress levels. Jupina has held discussions with Narbis, a company that uses EEG sensors to measure brain waves, and has worked with the Villanova psychology department to use measurements of muscle tension to get an idea of someone’s focus or concentration level.
A tightened jaw or wrinkled forehead might indicate a batter on edge, for example. Perhaps one day, that feedback might pause the system, forcing users to relax before continuing, and conditioning them over time to step up to the plate with a clearer, more-focused mind. A similar neurotechnology has been used by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
According to Jupina, one MLB team has expressed interest in using that part of the technology along with inputted crowd noise and eye-tracking technology in its scouting process. While most professional-grade players might perform well at the plate or in batting cages during practice, their abilities might change when they’re in a high-pressure gameday situation.
“You throw them some practice pitching they’re going to crush that ball, so they’d rather see how they handle actual pitches and how well they’re tracking that ball with their eyes and what their state of mind is,” he said.
Further into the future, Jupina believes the technology could also be adapted into other sports that have fast-moving objects that have to be caught or hit, including tennis, hockey, and lacrosse.


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When Regular People Inherit Famous Sports Phone Numbers

One morning two weeks ago, Giana Manzi woke up to a flurry of text messages buzzing her bedside. When she reached for her phone, she understood the commotion.
“Well, Rocco got a new job,” she thought.
Manzi and new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli have never met, so the barrage of alerts might seem odd. They are both Rhode Island natives, however, and Manzi inherited the former ballplayer’s old 401 area code phone number. (It’s a small state.) A diehard baseball fan, she had tracked Baldelli’s career—mostly with the Rays with a brief stint on her beloved Red Sox—as any Ocean State resident might, so she knew why this was big news.
Manzi had recently discovered her phone number’s provenance when someone wrote to her a few weeks ago. “Yo yo yo! what up snoop? How’s the offseason been going? I just read that you interviewed with the Rangers. That’s awesome!!!” Manzi initially replied in character, something to the effect of “Yeah man, pretty sweet. Cross your fingers for me.”

Rhode Island is a small state. But so small that I get @roccodbaldelli’s wrong number texts?
PS Rocco, a friend of yours is trying to get in touch… pic.twitter.com/UkW1g5h3wZ
— Giana Manzi (@gmanziii) October 16, 2018

Asked why she played along, Manzi said, “Sometimes you see on Buzzfeed these really funny [wrong number] exchanges. Let’s just see if something funny comes out of it.”
Her pen pal jokingly replied, “If you need managerial tips, I coach my son’s baseball team.” The name of the sport suddenly triggered a connection. Manzi googled “baseball manager Rangers” and, lo and behold, there were reports of Baldelli’s managerial interview with the Texas Rangers.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, he definitely means Rocco,’” Manzi said. “I texted him back, cleared the air. He thought it was hysterical. I thought that was the end of it.”
It was—until Baldelli got the Twins job. Manzi has had this phone number since 2009, but this managerial milestone prompted many old pals to reach out for the first time in a long while. One of the wrong numbers was former Rays teammate Matt Diaz, now an MLB Network Radio host on SiriusXM, who last played with Baldelli in 2004. Diaz and cohost Mike Ferrin even invited her on the program, after which Manzi tweeted at Baldelli, “We are the internet’s favorite story right now.”
New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli (left) and GM Thad Levine (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
People change phone numbers all the time, of course, although less so since the FCC began mandating that wireless companies accommodate number portability in November 2003. Almost everyone has received a wrong-number call or text, but the misdirected interactions are more loaded and more amusing when they include someone in the public sphere.
While working a different job in 2016, I texted the number I had for Jerry Dipoto, whom the Mariners had hired as their general manager the previous fall. I soon received this reply: “Happy to give you an interview but this is not Jerry and this is no longer Jerry’s phone Let me know if you still want that interview.”
I initially redirected my efforts to tracking down Dipoto’s new contact information but eventually responded to the wrong number with a friendly joke about the request. This time, the mysterious phone owner wrote: 
“You redeemed yourself – I thought you were void of humor. You can’t imagine the hundreds of messages I’ve received and the all the intimate details of insider trading My lips are sealed. Advice to other famous people who want/need to change phone numbers: Pay to keep your old number and hide the phone in a drawer. Too much information in the wrong hands could be catastrophic.”
In fact, this person—who stopped replying before I could find out any personal information—said an Associated Press reporter reached out when Seattle first hired Dipoto, and the person’s son initially offered a made-up statement. At that point, the parent who had been bequeathed this 480 area code number intervened: “I just couldn’t let the reporter ruin his career, so I contacted him before it went to print. Due diligence my friend – due diligence. Lol.”

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Sometimes an outsider can bring some fresh perspective on another industry. Fort Worth resident Camille Camp received a company phone for her job as a sales rep at United Rentals, and the new 817 number used to belong to Texas Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine, who is now the GM of the Twins (and, coincidentally, the man who hired Baldelli). Camp had a similar experience as Manzi with some two-dozen text messages in the first nine months with the phone number.
“No one ever calls,” Camp said. “They always text. It’s kind of crazy.”
That observation certainly rings true among ballwriters. Los Angeles Times national baseball writer Andy McCullough coined the hashtag #TextExecs as the reportorial ethos of the offseason generally and the winter meetings specifically. In fact, I once wrote a story about how technology—and text messaging, in particular—had killed the modus operandi of the winter meetings.
Amusingly, Levine contributed a quote to that story—by text, and in response to my text. (It was meta.) He admitted that some in-person conversations at the winter meetings were scheduled purely as an excuse to attendees to get up and stretch their legs. But the (literal) inside baseball dynamic of communications can certainly seem foreign to someone working in sales.
“It’s just funny because it’s a completely different industry and completely different type of person who has this number now than when he did,” Camp said. “I’m 24, and obviously I’m not the GM of a professional baseball team. I’m a sales rep for a construction equipment company so it’s not so glamorous as his life.”
Another difference between ballplayers and most mainstream professions is the way colleagues address each other. Baseball is, after all, the sport that made stars out of men called Yogi, Papi, Goose, Ducky, Cool Papa, and the Babe. And the tradition continues.
“There were some nicknames that were really funny that I have no idea what they mean,” Manzi said with a laugh.
Manzi works in marketing at LogMeIn, a software company headquartered in Boston. Her dream is to be a sports reporter, but for now, she said, “My side job is his assistant and trying to relay the messages, but he hasn’t gotten back to me. So I’m just holding onto these for when he wants to know who reached out.”


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VICIS Brings Youth Football Helmet to Market After Series B Investment From Aaron Rodgers

Football helmet technology company VICIS has completed its $28.5M Series B round of funding, which includes investment from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The company also announced the commercial availability of Zero1 Youth, its first helmet designed for youth football players.
The youth helmet maintains the same soft outer shell and protective layers engineered for VICIS’ adult helmet model, but the youth model is lighter and more compact to further protect youth football players from sustaining concussions through impact. Rodgers joins fellow NFL QBs Alex Smith and Russell Wilson as investors in VICIS. Both Smith and Wilson wear the Vicis helmet on the field. Rodgers’ investment comes via venture capital firm Rx3 Ventures.  
“We invested in VICIS because its commitment to player safety – specifically at the youth level – is one we wanted to support,” said Rodgers in a press release. “We look forward to working with VICIS as they continue to develop outstanding technologies for players at all levels.”

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While VICIS retails its Zero1 adult helmet for $950, the youth helmet will cost $495, according to TechCrunch. The helmet weighs just less than four pounds and offers the widest field of view of any kids’ helmet currently available. VICIS has now received $84 million in total investments since the Seattle-based company was founded in 2013.
SportTechie Takeaway
Separate studies conducted by the NFL/NFLPA and Virginia Tech Helmet Lab both named VICIS Zero1 as the safest football helmet available.  VICIS’ new helmet may be just as effective when worn by youth football players. But the helmet’s lofty $495 price tag may make the purchasing decision more difficult for the average American family or youth-level team. 


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FlightScope’s New Radar Measures Throwing Performance for Track and Field Athletes

FlightScope has released a new 3D doppler tracking radar for track and field throwers and coaches called FlightScope Athletics. The radar measures launch speed, apex height, flight time, and release angle during throws for track and field events such as the hammer throw, shot put, discus, and javelin.
FlightScope Athletics combines lightweight and portable 3D tracking radar hardware with advanced ballistic flight analysis software to track thrown objects from launch until they land. After throwing, athletes can observe their throw data in real-time via a dashboard that comes with synced video analysis and performance feedback. The product also offers a sector grouping feature to keep track of where each throw landed throughout a training session.

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“For almost 20 years, we have been a trusted tool for athletes of all kinds to help improve their game,” said Henri Johnson, CEO of FlightScope, in a press release. “We are proud to introduce a product that will help a new sect of athletes, and provide reliable data for them to use to improve their skills and take them to the next level.”
Founded in 1989, FlightScope’s tracking technology has been used in golf to measure the flight statistics of golf balls hit. The company also has applications for cricket, tennis, softball, and baseball. Britney Henry, a former hammer thrower at the University of Oregon, has joined FlightScope Athletics as Head of Business Development.
“The FlightScope Athletics Radar helps throwers in so many ways—it helps track progression through a training year, giving athletes updates on where they stand physically and offering coaches data and video feedback to indicate how a thrower is progressing,” Henry said in the press release. “I am extremely humbled that FlightScope has brought me on board to show the track and field world how this technology can improve one’s throw. This is a tool I wish I had during my throwing career.”
SportTechie Takeaway
This performance tracking tool will be useful for both athletes and coaches involved in track and field throwing events. Rival doppler radar tracking company Trackman is used in MLB’s Statcast and now also in field goal tracking technology that has been part of NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football broadcast this NFL season.


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New York City Marathon Builds Wheelchair-Accessible Interactive Video Game

The New York City Marathon will have a new videogame on display this weekend that will enable people, including those in wheelchairs, to race one another in place using a Dance Dance Revolution-like touchpad.
The interactive game, which will be set-up near the finish line in Manhattan’s Central Park, was created by NYC Marathon sponsor TCS, which is behind a number of new NYC Marathon app upgrades this year, including behind-the-scenes prediction software for race winners.
Called Marathon City, the game will match up two players at a time, who will be able to pick from a selection of avatars, including avatars in wheelchairs. They’ll race through a digital rendering of the final 200 meters of the NYC Marathon course in Central Park.

On the screen, runners will use controller pads at their feet and will run in place to propel their characters. This is similar to the way a gamer might have used the Nintendo Power Pad in the 1990’s to race avatars on the original Nintendo, or the way dancers might compete in arcades.
There’s also a mechanism for people in wheelchairs that acts as a sort-of bike trainer, allowing them to spin in place. TCS engineers adjusted the calibrations so that a person in a wheelchair will moves more slowly than they would in real life, allowing those on their feet to compete.

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Michelle Taylor, head of sports sponsorships at TCS, said the game will likely find its way to New York Road Runners’ youth programs as part of a broader effort to promote health and fitness. The wheelchair accessibility is also part of both organizations’ efforts to promote inclusiveness, especially since the marathon already has a wheelchair division.
“It’s really opened up a conversation about inclusion in gaming,” Taylor said. “We wanted it to be inclusive, so we created wheeler avatars, and we wanted to have a way for them to participate in the game in an authentic way.”

When TCS began developing Marathon City, it found few other games, especially active games, that accommodated people of different abilities. Though the game was tricky and expensive to build out, Taylor said TCS and the marathon believe it was well-worth the investment.
“From what we can tell, it’s one of the first games that have been adapted for wheelchair input,” she said. “We’re excited to test it out, to get some kids on it, and hopefully get some pro-athlete wheelers into the game and have fun with it.”


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How Analytics Is Shaping the 2018 World Series and Baseball’s Future

Ahead of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, SportTechie spoke to Vince Gennaro to get insight into this year’s Fall Classic matchup and the future of analytics in baseball. Gennaro is the president of the Society of American Baseball Research and associate dean and clinical associate professor of NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.
The Impact of Analytics on the 2018 World Series
“Both teams are very prepared in that both teams have studied the information available to them. What I do think though is that the Red Sox were constructed in a way that is really completely in step with today’s game. I think the Red Sox have done a terrific job—as have the Dodgers.”
“The teams that are most likely to reach the World Series, or certainly the ones that make the postseason, are the teams that are in the top third of the league in analytics, and then also are particularly good at blending that with the scouting side of the sport. The blending is an important aspect. Analytics will not give them all the answers, but it will be a great component of the decision process along with top scouting insights from expert individuals who have years and years of experience.”
Baseball’s Analytics Era
“There’s so much that can be unlocked in the experience of insights of the people who have been around the game for years who are observing specific attributes that we’re not measuring today. I don’t know that that will ever change, but it’s also because we’re really in the early stages of analytics. It’s taken a real leap forward in the last three or four years in the Statcast era, but that’s only the beginning of the explosion of Big Data. From 2005 to 2015, that 10 year window, we increased the volume of data of what goes on during a baseball game by 1.3 million times.”
“We’re on the cusp now of integrating beyond what goes on on the field of play. We’re now talking about integrating neuroscience information. We’re talking about integrating biometrics about health and wellness.”
Engaging Fans With Data
“Numbers—data, statistics—are deeply ingrained in the culture of baseball. While in another sport that might seem like almost intrusive on enjoying the sport, it is actually one of the ways that people have learned and enjoy the game of baseball. Either by looking at the back of the baseball card when they were a kid growing up or going to a ballgame with their mom or dad and scoring it on a scoresheet. Those parts are very culturally ingrained.”
“Now when you take it to the next level of getting into things like exit velocity and launch angle, that’s an acquired taste. That’s going to be something that some fans drive on and seek out, and other fans would perhaps consider that would interfere with the romance of the sport.”
Baseball and Sports Betting
“Baseball is ripe to see betting expand and part of it is that there are so many ways to analyze the game. And one of the reasons there’s so many ways to analyze it is the key component of the game is this discrete matchup, the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter. A lot of other sports are more continuous—flow sports—and they’re harder to assign value. They’re harder to isolate and measure.”
“This is the stuff that teams do all the time: They assess how their hitters respond to certain pitchers. Not by looking at the fact that they got six hits in 15 at bats, because that’s not significant enough, but rather how do they react to the pitcher that releases the ball from a certain point. How do they react to pitches that have downward movement. How do they react to a pitcher who pitches more to the inside part of the plate, to one who throws a changeup. All these different attributes of pitchers are meaningful in terms of how a hitter is expected to perform.”
“When you start clustering pitchers by similarity and seeing how hitters hit against those, you can start to make some real inferences. And when you rack all that up, when you look at a team’s roster and you say ‘Well you know what? This is not a great pitcher that they’re going to face, but they’re at a real disadvantage today because none of their hitters perform particularly well against this type of pitcher.’ That’s where the bettors will be attracted to inefficiencies like that in the market that may or may not be reflected in the odds.”

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The Value of Data for Players
“J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox has really optimized his talent with the use of analytics. He has crafted his swing, his swing mechanics, so that he gets maximum impact for the talent that he has. He becomes in many ways a model for other hitters … Here’s a guy who understands the dimensions of the ballpark. One of the wonderful great things about baseball is that the ballpark dimensions vary so much. He understands the dimensions of the ballpark that he plays in—Fenway Park in Boston—and has tailored his swing for that ballpark. I think he is a really textbook example of a player who has remade his career using information to his advantage.”
Talent Versus Intelligence
“It used to be talent trumped everything. But today because of the volume of information that exists, and how much we know about a player, how much a pitcher knows about a hitter, how much a hitter knows about a pitcher before they even face them, it’s the ability to continue along that chess match.”
“We know what the holes in this guy’s swing are, we’re going to exploit them. That used to take months or years to figure out with a certain hitter. Now you will know that probably before they take their first major league at bat.”
“I do think that if we could find a way, a good way to assess an athlete’s learning agility, his ability to incorporate new information into his game, then that will be another variable that will help select really great talent.”
“Just because someone performs well at the mid-level in the minors, it doesn’t mean he’s the best candidate for promotion to the next level of the minors, or that he projects necessarily to success at the major league level. It depends on what his skills are, and it also depends on obviously the quality of competition he’s facing. But it finally also depends on whether he’s adaptable enough, once people respond to him, to be able to make that next chess move.”
Home-Field Advantage in Los Angeles
“I would expect the Dodgers to put up a more formidable showing back in LA. That 40-degree difference of temperature is not a trivial thing. The Dodgers are not accustomed to playing in the weather that we saw in Boston, and the Red Sox are a little more accustomed to that, so I think that we’ll see a more even series.”
“Like most American League teams, the Red Sox are supremely built for the designated hitter. They will lose that when they go to the three games in LA now—Games 3, 4, and 5—and I think the pendulum will swing back to LA having an upper hand. Not just because you’re playing at home, but because they’re not as designed to employ the DH the way the Red Sox are, and the Red Sox are not designed to take one bat out of the lineup and have the pitcher hit. That they both hone their games appropriately to the leagues they play in will make the home-field advantage a pretty pronounced thing.”


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New Collapsible Bike Helmet Shatters Fundraising Goal

Three years ago, Rachel Hall was hit by a car as she was riding through the Park and Diamond intersection near Temple University in Philadelphia. The driver didn’t stop. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. She ended up in a coma for four months.
Her brother David and his friend Jordan Klein, then both engineering undergraduates at Virginia Tech, reacted to Rachel’s accident by setting out to figure out why people don’t always wear helmets, and trying to solve that problem. Now they are shattering fundraising targets on Indiegogo as they accept pre-orders for a collapsible helmet that looks something like a baseball cap.
As of Thursday morning, their company, Park & Diamond, had raised more than $530,000, easily meeting its $50,000 fixed goal just a week into the month-long campaign. Pre-orders are expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2019. (Rachel is a long way along in her recovery, and now jokes that she should get a cut of the success.)
“She wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the question was why wasn’t she wearing a helmet?” Hall said. “We asked that question when she was in the intensive care unit, and after.”
Hall and Klein are driven by this statistic: 97 percent of cyclists who died in accidents in New York City in 2005 weren’t wearing helmets. While Rachel survived, they realized how fatal the decision not to wear a helmet could be. They sat down one day and thought “We have to do something about this.”
Hall and Klein won a series of startup competitions while at Virginia Tech, and then received a seed funding round that allowed them to hire their first employees: a former SpaceX engineer and a CBS employee who could lead marketing.

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They have conducted thousands of rider interviews so far. The reasons for why people opted not to wear helmets quickly surfaced. Notably, the people they talked to didn’t feel existing bike helmets were comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, or portable.
Hall and Klein figured they could address the aesthetic problem by outfitting helmets with removable covers that made them appear more like baseball caps. But addressing the portability issue meant figuring out a way to collapse the helmet itself.
Most bike helmets today used a foamed polymer liner, typically a denser version of the expanded polystyrene used in foam cups and coolers. EPS is bulky and hard, incapable of being rolled up or folded. A collapsible helmet couldn’t be built from EPS, so Hall and Klein developed their own proprietary composite material that they say also works as well or better in terms of protection than existing helmets on the market today.
“It’s our secret sauce that allows the whole helmet to work,” Hall said. “Our focus was how do we make a material with less volume that could take as much or more energy. Our helmet uses something completely different. The material is rigid, so at end of day what’s standing between you and what you’re about to impact is rigid and can absorb the energy.”
Unlike traditional foam helmets that might bounce and crack on impact, Park & Diamond claims its helmet shell does not bounce because it’s designed to immediately absorb and dissipate energy. At just eight ounces in weight, the helmet is light, portable in that it can collapse to the size of a water bottle, yet still adequately disperses the energy of a blow to the head. The exterior covers are removable and washable, so Park & Diamond is planning to even enable personalization of designs.
The company already has a number of patents and trademarks and is currently working to meet required U.S. and E.U. helmet regulations. While the first iteration will only be available in adult sizes, Park & Diamond has already surpassed all current U.S. CPSC Children’s Product Certificate standards. Further into the future, it plans to expand into other sports, such as skiing and snowboarding.


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