UA-Built Concussion App in NCAA Competition

Sports-related concussions are now part of the national conversation, and a team of UA researchers — including football players Jason Sweet and Scooby Wright — is teaching athletes to recognize and report the signs.
Feb. 5, 2016
UA linebacker Jason Sweet uses an iPhone and Google Cardboard to play BrainGainz. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
UA linebacker Jason Sweet uses an iPhone and Google Cardboard to play BrainGainz. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
Jason Sweet and associate professor of engineering Ricardo Valerdi on the field at Arizona Stadium. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
Jason Sweet and associate professor of engineering Ricardo Valerdi on the field at Arizona Stadium. (Photo: Emily Litvack/UA Office for Research & Discovery)
After the user is "tackled," the screen becomes blurry and replicates the symptoms of a concussion.
After the user is "tackled," the screen becomes blurry and replicates the symptoms of a concussion.

Despite new concussion-management protocols in the NCAA and NFL, many athletes still don't recognize concussion symptoms or won't report them if they do.

The University of Arizona creators of BrainGainz, a virtual-reality app that allows users to experience the symptoms of concussion, hope to change that.

Ricardo Valerdi, associate professor of systems engineering at the UA, was joined by Hirsch Handmaker and Jonathan Lifshitz at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix in 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 athletes and soldiers on concussion.

On Friday, the BrainGainz team presented its prototype to NCAA officials in Indianapolis in the education category of the challenge. A second category was devoted to entries in research.

The BrainGainz prototype is compatible with iPhone and Android and uses Google Cardboard, a foldout virtual-reality headset with a $10 price tag.

With smartphones slipped inside of the cardboard headset, users of BrainGainz find themselves standing on the field in Arizona Stadium, a 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 linebackers Jason Sweet and Scooby Wright, users have a choice to make: Recover or get back in the game.

Sweet, a molecular and cellular biology major, and Wright, who recently announced he will enter this year's NFL Draft, have collaborated on the app since its inception.

Sweet said athletes instinctively "want to compete and stay in the game." To change that, he said, the app must not only be educational — it has to be cool.

The stakes are high. A stay-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," Handmaker said.

Said Valerdi: "A concussion can change your life, and this is a public health issue. We need to better inform athletes, coaches, trainers and parents how to identify a concussion."