Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Stephen Colbert Tackles Thayer’s Robotic Football Dummy

By Anna Fiorentino
November 2015 • CoolStuff

Last month, former Dartmouth football player Elliot Kastner '13 Th'14 mistook an email inviting him and his invention, the “Mobile Virtual Player” (MVP), to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for spam. He wondered how a germ of an idea by Dartmouth Football Coach Eugene “Buddy” Teevens to eliminate player-on-player contact could manifest into an appearance on the popular CBS TV show—the same week Cate Blanchette, Bill Clinton and Oprah were scheduled. But a few weeks later, there Kastner and Teevens stood—on stage next to Colbert as he tackled their robotic padded humanoid.

“Colbert had good tackling form and wanted to have fun with the MVP, but recognized that player safety is of critical importance and not a matter to joke about,” says Kastner. Likely so did millions watching and 150,000 more in the YouTube clip from the show, “Stephen Finally Gets to Tackle a Robot.”

The MVP first sparked the interest of Colbert’s producers after they viewed a clip provided by the Office of Communications at Dartmouth showing the dummy in action at a Dartmouth football practice.

“One producer was intrigued and thought it would present some informative yet comedic action on the stage for a short segment. The producer was super excited for Colbert to tackle the MVP on stage,” says Kastner. “Colbert was in control of the entire operation. He knew what he wanted to air and made decisions to modify the show on the fly.”

The MVP is now the only powered tackling device to simulate a real football player in size, weight, and agility by replicating an in-game tackling experience. Teevens originally sponsored the dummy, which is still in the development stage, as a fall 2014 Engineering Design Methodology class project. He set out to reduce injuries following an $870 million settlement compensating thousands of NFL players for concussion-related injuries. The student team of football players and fans, which included Kastner, Quinn Connell '13 Th'14, Andrew Smist '13 Th'14, and MEM student Noah Glennon Th'14, then came up with the MVP to eliminate player-on-player contact during tackling drills while maintaining the level of challenge associated with a live person. That original team, along with Teevens and advisor and Research Engineer John Currier, now anchor a group continuing development of the MVP. Alexander Jenny ’10, T’16, who was once starting quarterback at Dartmouth, is assisting with business development. 

Mobile Virtual Player

For a small manufacturing cost consistent with other field sporting equipment, the group hopes to sell their dummy to professional- and collegiate-level teams in the near future. Early prototypes constructed in the Thayer Machine Shop were constructed from a combination of foam and metal. The MVP’s proprietary drive system allows immediate directional changes that simulate a player dodging a tackle. While it’s currently remotely controlled, the group plans to eventually drive the system with preprogrammed routes and drills through Bluetooth.

“Our priority for the next few months is strictly to improve the function of the MVP and of course to ensure players will be safe when interacting with it before we sell any units,” says Kastner.

Kastner, Teevens, and the others working on MVP were also recognized by the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, a group that promotes entrepreneurship for many, including students, faculty, clinicians, researchers, at the group’s forum in San Francisco in September. Meanwhile, they just sponsored further project development by two fall ENGS 89/90 teams.

“The goal of the teams is to develop a more comprehensive electronic and programmable control system and to refine the mechanical design for better function and ease,” says Kastner. Those 2015 BE team members include Matt Metzler, Matt Wilson, Brett Nicholas, Arthur Blissert, Jack Brown, Colin Heffernan, Hunter Black, Moises Silva and Tyler Stout.

“As an engineer and former football player, I can’t think of a more fun and energizing project to be a part of,” says Kastner. That feeling was reinforced even further in the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York last month.

“For me, the most memorable part of being on Colbert was probably just walking out onto the stage and sitting down. It was quite a rush to see the audience and all of the lights,” says Kastner.

Tags: design, innovation, projects, students

comments powered by Disqus