Stanford football team uses VR to catch concussions as they happen

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Concussions remain one of the most pressing issues for the world of football, with no easy answers in sight. To help protect their players, many leagues and teams of all levels have been turning to advanced technology like high-tech helmets, collision monitoring systems, and computerized concussion assessment tools designed to identify concussions when they happen.

Still, there’s no silver bullet to guarantee injured players will be pulled out of the game when they have a concussion.

In their effort to fight concussions, Stanford football is using technology found nowhere else in football. The team is utilizing a new eye-tracking headset designed specifically to monitor concussions and inform team staff within moments of a brain injury happening.

The device, called Eye-Sync, is a portable VR headset that conducts an objective test of an athlete’s eyes and reaction times to identify concussions and help determine when an athlete needs to be benched for an injury.

The headset works by using cameras inside the headset to assess an athlete’s ability to process visual movement. Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, creator of the Eye-Sync, director of the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center, and president of the Brain Trauma Foundation explains that healthy brains rely on vision to help “synchronize” the brain with the surrounding environment. For example, this process is what allows people to predict where moving objects will be, like a football flying through the air.

If the brain is injured, the synchronization process is interrupted, delaying response time and increasing the chance of mistakes.

“Basically, people feel out of sync, their timing is off because they’re unable to predict when things are going to happen,” Ghajar told CBS News in a phone interview. “That’s really dangerous, because if you send somebody back into play and they’ve got the inability, then they’ll get another concussion or another injury. Detecting that early on, on the sideline, screening somebody very quickly and accurately and reliably is really important. Fortunately, the eyes are responsible not only for vision, but they move in response to vision. So, you can actually measure how well somebody synchronizes with the outside world using eye movement.

“What we do is, we have VR glasses with a red dot going around a circle and cameras inside the glasses so you can actually see where the eyes are moving. We see how well the eyes synchronize with the visual stimulus, the dot going around the circle. The test is 15 seconds, it’s repeated twice, and then a report comes out, so the whole process is very quick, generally under a minute.”

Team officials can then use the report to make an informed decision about whether to bench a player or put them back out on the field.

While the tool can help show whether a player is injured, it does little to address the biggest problem fueling the concussion crisis in football. To get players to take the visual test, you first have to get them to step off the field when they believe they may be injured. Unless team staff or independent spotters remove the player, the onus is entirely on the athlete to decide if they should go to the sidelines.

As research continues to show, getting athletes to report their own concussions remains troublesome. Ghajar suggests the only way to change this phenomenon is to change how we talk about concussions.

“It should be, you want to have optimal brain performance. If your eye-tracking is off, guess what, you’re not going to perform properly,” said Ghajar. “If you can’t visualize somebody coming at you on the field, you’re not going to be able to catch the ball, you’re not going to be able to tackle anybody, and you’re not going to do well.”

As with all the new concussion assessment devices coming into the market, the Eye-Sync is a step in the right direction. But, it is not a cure-all.

“It’s an advanced neuroscience tool, it’s the future of screening people for concussions,” said Ghajar. “But, it’s just one part of screening. I think that waving one wand and saying we have a concussion or not is not possible. There’s multiple things that go wrong. But, I do think, the most important thing on the sideline is to get people who are disoriented.”

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