VR Could Be Saving Brains in Contact Sports

Brain injuries are a touchy topic in sports such as boxing and American football. Repeated strikes to the head can have a devastating effect on the long-term health of players. Sometimes the results of this accumulated damage only becomes apparent in autopsies.

One study found that 78% of football players exhibited signs of brain disease related to repeated head impacts.

Hard to Detect

One of the major problems is that much of the damage is “subconcussive” and therefore not really detectable on the field. Field tests for full concussion have been in place for years and are effective, but small brain injuries may have signs so subtle that a human attendant couldn’t hope to spot them.

So VR along with cutting-edge eye tracking technology may soon be used to let sports authorities know if a player should be pulled and give medical attention.

The EYE-SYNC

One prominent project is being run by professor Keisuke Iwata at the university of Indiana. Starting in February of 2017, the study will compare the intricate and subtle movements of a player’s eyes in a VR environment after receiving subconcussive impacts to the head.

The study will look at a variety of sports, including soccer and high-school football. By mapping the eye movements of post-impact athletes to a healthy baseline it may be possible to create a test that can detect damage before a progression to full concussion occurs.

Commercial VR is Helping

It’s not just specialized medical devices such as the EYE-SYNC that’s bringing VR into this crucial issue. Work done at both the Universities of Birmingham and East Anglia uses a plain old Oculus Rift with special software and a balance board to detect subtle signs of brain injury.

This study is being done specifically with regards to English football (“soccer” in the US) which may not immediately register as a contact sport. The truth is that even small repeated impact such as heading a ball can accumulate damage until serious levels are reached.

In this approach it’s not about eye movement, but about how well the athlete can balance while following instructions inside a virtual environment. The balance performance data can then (in theory) be used to figure out if something may be wrong.

What’s interesting about this solution is that it uses off-the-shelf equipment and promises to be a cheaper solution, if it works reliably enough.

Making the World a Better Place

It’s good to see that the new generation of virtual reality technology is finding uses that go beyond the entertainment industry. Hopefully studies like these are only the beginning and will demonstrate the true potential of virtual reality as an amazing 21st century technology.

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