Publish date:

Sound Bite

The future of on-field communication may sound like the little voice inside your head

NFL TEAMS already use high-end noise-canceling headphones on the sidelines but the receivers inside players' helmets have to fight ambient noise. In the future there may be a way for coaches to send signals that not even the loudest crowd could drown out. In the next few weeks the Cowboys and a Dallas-based startup called MindTalk will begin testing prototypes of a mouth guard fitted with a small receiver during practice. The signal from the sideline is converted into vibrations by the mouth guard. Those vibrations travel through the player's teeth to his jaw bone then to his inner ear, where they stimulate the cochlea just as incoming sound waves would. "You don't actually hear it," explains Nick Fragnito, one of MindTalk's founders. "It almost feels like the voice inside your head."

Fragnito, 25, and cofounder Rob Burke, 24, got their idea from their days playing football and from a musical trinket of their youth. In 1998, Hasbro made a lollipop holder called Sound Bites that used bone conduction to let kids listen to music while they sucked on a treat. MindTalk repackaged that technology and now hopes to use it for more than child's play.

"[The mouth guard] is a form that hasn't been done before," Burke says. "Basically it accommodates communication in extreme environments." It's also a cool way for someone who's sparring or skating laps to listen to music. Besides the Cowboys, the company is working with the Dallas Stars, and the founders also see uses for first responders and construction workers. The product should hit shelves next August primarily as a music player with other applications to follow, though it won't appear on NFL sidelines any time soon. (The league has a deal with Bose.)

Elsewhere, though, coaches who want to get in a player's head will have a direct line.

[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]

1. A receiver in the mouthpiece converts the incoming signal to vibrations.

2. The vibrations travel through the teeth and jaw into the ear.

3. The vibrations stimulate the ear's cochlea, just as incoming sound waves would.

Brain Changer

How can you get some of the benefits of PEDs without using drugs? Thync. Strap this triangular device above your eyebrow, and it pulses small electrical currents, no more than about 20 milliamps, into the nerves on the head through a sticky strip of electrodes.

According to Jamie Tyler, Thync's CSO and cofounder, the currents modulate norepinephrine production in the brain, increasing it to boost alertness or decreasing it for greater calmness. The effects vary from person to person, but 80% of people experience a strong response, according to the company.

Is it legal? Thync is neither a drug nor a medical device that would require FDA approval, but it can produce effects similar to banned doping agents. "If you get to the point where you can start to shave seconds off [your] time," Tyler says, "then there might be cause for concern. But we're not there yet."