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Darth Vader’s Helmet Refitted for Quarterback Peyton Manning

In the future, scifi teaches us, helmets won’t just be for head protection — they’ll serve as entire life support systems. Robocop’s visor allows the mechano-cop to identify perps and avoid surprise assaults; Darth Vader’s helmet protects Anakin’s charred and mangled face; and in The Sixth Day, a football helmet delivers real-time messages from the coach and warns its wearer of impending life-threatening blitzes. Science might not yet have reached the stage where it can support a half-dead Sith warrior, but thanks to advances in football helmet technology, our NFL players might one day be as protected as the ones in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scifi thriller.

A new “smart” helmet created by Hothead Technologies of Atlanta is being rapidly adopted by high school and college football teams, and may help save lives by preventing players from overheating. HOT — or Heat Observation Technology — is a helmet with a built in electronic thermometer that measures the temperature in the helmet-wearer’s temporal artery (sadly not the artery that allows for time travel) and transmits the data to a coach or health trainer’s PDA device in real time.

While overheating may not be as sensational as a spinal injury (or in the case of The Sixth Day, a broken neck), the condition has resulted in 39 football player deaths since 1995. Detecting early warning signs through HOT would allow coaches and managers to pull players off the field whose base temperatures are between 99.9° and 110°F, and allow them to rest and rehydrate while their temperature drops to basic human levels.

So your players are cool — but how do you keep them safe otherwise? The New Hampshire-based company Simbex has developed sensor-embedded telemetry football helmets that can gauge concussive level impacts to players and immediately notify medical personnel on the field. Not only does this take away the guesswork of benching an injured player, it also compiles data on the biomechanics of head injuries, giving scientists the information they need to create even smarter football helmets. “The data is there,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, research director at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. “Now, hopefully, physicians and trainers will put it to good use.”

The Sixth Day may have gotten a few things wrong (the longevity of the XFL, nacho flavored bananas), but it does foreshadow the idea that a player and coach will be able to communicate data through the player’s helmet. As “$300 million contract Quarterback” Johnny Phoenix prepares to run his last play, the coach sends instructions through a laptop directly to the heads-up display visor in Phoenix’s helmet. The flow of information is reversed from HOT or Simbex, but the idea is the same — that high-tech monitoring between those on the field and off will keep our players safe.

As for Star Wars‘ Darth Vader, his helmet is the perfect cross between style and function. Not only does it make Anakin look like a badass as the Emperor’s favorite student, it also monitors and manages the breathing apparatus and vitals of his cybernetic body. (We’d say the same for Spaceballs‘ Dark Helmet, but that’s probably just there for comic value.) Johnny Phoenix might not have been able to prevent a blitz, but I defy you to take down Darth Vader when he’s got the football.

Hothead is already expected to roll out over 400,000 of the HOT Helmets — mostly to high schools and colleges — in the next year, while Simbex is monitoring players at seven univerisites and five high schools. Perhaps the next iteration of helmet will include a heads-up display for the players, or sheath horrible disfigurements behind a veil of black badassery.

I’m personally holding out for Demolition Man‘s virtual reality sex helmets. Given the exponential developments in the field, it should be any day now…

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