Toys you buy this holiday season could be significantly safer thanks to research taking place at Virginia Tech. 

And it all started with efforts to better protect U.S. soldiers on the battlefield.

In the early 2000s, soldiers deployed in the Middle East were experiencing more and more eye injuries from explosive blasts. When these injuries resulted in vision loss or damage, they could often have a major impact on a soldier’s quality of life and career path.

“It was a serious problem,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering in the College of Engineering and interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “It led to a drive to quantify these injuries and figure out how we can prevent them.”

But at the time, there weren’t adequate research tools to measure impacts to the eyes and face and evaluate the risks of the wide range of possible injuries.

Duma, an expert in injury biomechanics who had done extensive auto-safety and head-injury research, took on the project, which was funded by the U.S. Army.

“We spent about 10 years researching the basics of eye injuries and facial fractures,” he said. “We ran thousands of experiments, built computer models, and built a physical model.”

That physical model, a dummy headform outfitted with impact sensors, remains the state of the art today. It allows researchers to precisely measure forces exerted by a projectile on the eyes and face, determine which impacts are more likely to cause injury, and evaluate safety goggles and other protective equipment.

The specialized equipment and testing methods Duma developed led to advances in safety goggles used by the Army and regulations mandating their use.

“Discoveries and innovations made with our academic and industrial partners are infused into the Army’s science and technology laboratory portfolio and create new scientific discoveries needed for technical advances to help ensure the Army maintains its technological edge,” said David Skatrud, the director of the Army Research Office.

When Duma’s team first published their findings in 2008, it wasn’t long before toy manufacturers came calling. Hasbro, interested in understanding the head-injury risk of their Nerf swords, was the first company to contact Duma. 

Duma and Rowson, motion capture analysis with Nerf swords

Researchers watches as two children swing toy swords.
Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering, at left, and assistant professor Steven Rowson studied how children of different ages and genders swing swords. The research helps toy manufacturers design products that are unlikely to cause injuries.

That project launched what has become an active toy-testing program in Duma’s lab, which is internationally recognized for work on helmet safety and concussion prevention in athletes.

The team has studied head- and eye-injury risk for dozens of toys, including lightsabers, darts, toy helicopters, pellet guns, water guns, bows — which have gotten a boost in popularity from the Hunger Games series — and miniature drones.

“We get calls almost every day from inventors and companies,” Duma said. “Most inventors don’t have specialized labs and equipment like ours, that are set up to provide quick turnaround and comprehensive data.” 

In the lab, the team measures how much force the toys can generate and evaluates whether those forces put children at risk.

The researchers share the results with the companies, who often modify their designs to improve safety. Spring-loaded lightsabers and toy helicopter blades, for example, are less likely to cause eye injuries because of feedback from the lab’s research.

Collaborating with the companies on larger research projects can yield even more data, helping inform the design of safer toys for different target audiences.

“A great example was Nerf sword,” Duma said. “No one had really quantified how kids swing swords and how it changes with gender and age. So we had kids from 5 years to 12 years old, boys and girls, and used motion-capture analysis to study how they swung the swords and how hard they hit. Based on that data, you can design a toy so that when your brother smacks his friend, it won’t cause a serious injury.”

The research has extended beyond the toy aisle, too, evaluating injury risk associated with water features at theme parks and consumer hygiene products, such as water picks, facial brushes, and hairspray.

“None of this would have happened if the Army hadn’t funded that original research,” Duma said. “You see this in everything from better cars to safer seatbelts: Big federal funding builds a knowledge base that has a tremendous translational impact. All these things we see every day are safer because of that investment.” 

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