Intel melds football helmets and supers

Crash test dummies linebackers

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SC10 Chip maker Intel is working with American-football helmet maker Riddell and a number of universities around the United States to create a real-time telemetry and simulation system that will monitor collisions on the gridiron* to help coaches keep their players from doing serious, long-term damage to themselves.

Riddell has already designed its High Impact Telemetry System, or HITS, which measures the force of collisions as football players hit each other or get slammed to the ground. HITS-enabled helmets have six accelerometers embedded in them, which gather data that can be fed into supercomputer simulations for the deformation of the helmet and a player's skull, as well as the sloshing of their brains inside their heads when they take a hit — or give one.

Such hits, which can cause concussions or break bones, can have up to 150 gs of force — which is equivalent to driving a car at 35 miles per hour into a brick wall.

Riddell and Intel are working on a future helmet design that could possibly include an Atom processor and wireless transceivers that will allow for accelerometer data to be beamed to the sidelines, where it could be processed instantly by local computers or uploaded to larger remote machines to predict the level of damage a player has sustained, and to determine if that unfortunate soul should be removed from the game.

Such a system doesn't yet exist, but Intel is working with universities (and not necessarily at the traditional big football schools) as well as makers of various simulation programs running on its own Xeon processors and its future "Knights Corner" coprocessors to show how such a crash-test medical diagnostic system might be put together.

The main reason that Intel brought this grid iron work up at the SC10 supercomputer show now ongoing in New Orleans is to gave the chipmaker a chance to remind everyone that its processors dominate the Top 500 ranking of supercomputers (again) and that it is working on its own x64-based, many-cored coprocessors suitable for accelerating supercomputing workloads.

Football head injuries are also a current hot topic among professional and college football teams. Even the US Congress is starting to get involved, concerned that aging football players are showing greater levels of brain disorders than the population at large.

And finally, New Orleans is the home of the Saints football squad, which won the Super Bowl last year. The team's quarterback Drew Brees is a graduate of Indiana's Purdue University, which is also where Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, which makes the Xeon processors and future "Knights Corner" MIC coprocessors, got his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

The sensors Riddell embeds in its Revo line of football helmets can download data after a player is taken off the field, and input it into an application called the Sideline Response System, which takes the accelerometer data and calculates the angle and force of the hit the player sustained. The analysis it provides to a coach can be more reliable than a player's own assessment of his readiness when a coach needs to decide whether to put that player back in the game.

Intel wanted to take this system one step further by feeding the data into an LS-DYNA finite element analysis application to simulate the hit. It then took the Abacus complex fluid dynamics program to simulate the shock waves that perturb the brain in the wake of the helmet-to-helmet contact. Dartmouth University built the brain simulations, which can show if a player has cracked his noggin enough to get a concussion.

This model, of course, ran on Intel's future ten-core "Westmere-EX" processors, which is where the shameless marketing comes in. Skaugen said that Intel was working with the Mayo Clinic and its future MIC coprocessors to speed up the rendering of medical scans, which had only an ancillary connection to the football-helmet issue. Nonetheless, using the MIC coprocessors, Mayo Clinic has been able to drop the time it takes to render a brain scan from 5 minutes to 12 seconds. (You can find out more about the MIC co-processors here, which El Reg detailed in June.)

While this is a human-interest technology story and a lot of people at SC10 wanted to hear what Brees had to say about helmet safety, the former quarterback of the Purdue Boilermakers — the engineering school of the Big Ten college football league — undermined the very reason why coaches might need telemetry, modeling, and simulation as well as inherently safer equipment.

"The game is only getting faster and the guys playing the game are only getting bigger and stronger," Brees said. Brees played in 2004 with a concussion before his coach took him out, and gave the typical answer you would expect from a competitive quarterback after taking a big hit. "I'm sorry, but if I'm in the Super Bowl, I am lying to them and and trying to stay in the game."

There could be an even simpler answer than all of these computers. If you take the face guard off the front of the helmet maybe players might be less inclined to use their heads as weapons because they would hurt themselves as much as someone else with a hard hit.

Then again, this is football, and people are going to aggressive in the extreme — and that means someone is going to get hurt no matter how much telemetry and supercomputing you throw at the problem. ®

* An American-football pitch field, for our non-stateside readership.

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