One little soccer ball could literally bring light and energy to developing countries around the world. But the Soccket isn’t just a normal ol’ ball.
The Soccket, created by unchartedplay, generates clean electricity thanks to a small gyroscopic mechanism inside the ball. Normal play charges the ball, which then pumps out electricity through an output jack hidden under a seam. The ball is geared toward communities that don’t have access to electricity and must instead rely on more dangerous kerosene lamps. About 30 minutes of play is enough to power a special three-LED light for three hours.
According to the United Nations, about 25 percent of the world doesn’t have reliable access to electricity, and analog alternatives can be enormously dangerous. But the ball isn’t just about solving energy problems. “Part of it really is just about play and letting a kid just be a kid,” says co-founder Julia Silverman. “A lot of criticism we get is, ‘Why don’t we just give them a hand crank, wouldn’t that be more useful?’” Instead, unchartedplay is using sports to make a social and a technological difference: “There’s nothing fun about sitting in a corner and using a handcrank,” Silverman says. “Of course [it’s] a valid solution but they remind people of what they lack. What we do is remind people of the joy that is in their lives.”
Those are big boots to fill, but unchartedplay has some help. It’s been recognized by President Bill Clinton and invited to U.N. conferences, and now it’s working to put Soccket on the feet and lips of millions of viewers at the upcoming Rio World Cup and Olympics, two of the biggest soccer tournaments in the world.
All of this came from one class at Harvard that Silverman and co-founder Jessica O. Matthews almost flunked. The two signed up for Engineering 147, an engineering class for students studying other disciplines. Silverman and Matthews were enticed by a pot of money for successful class projects, but they quickly realized they were in over their heads. Soccket, as it came to be called, was a last-ditch attempt to pass the class, though that effort ultimately became their lives’ work. “It was a moment where it was like, ‘Soccer is the love and energy is the lack, so there must be a way to combine them,’” Silverman remembers. “That was the ‘Aha’ moment.”
Silverman, Matthews, and their lab partners built the first prototype themselves, but the project started to take shape six months after they graduated in 2010, when they both quit their jobs to work on the ball. Because of its mechanical guts, Soccket won’t ever be exactly regulation, but it’s darn close and, as a bonus, doesn’t need to be inflated. It’s also a step above the ramshackle balls — sometimes made of wrapped up plastic bags and other discarded objects — that people in developing countries often use.
Unchartedplay is working on shipping the ball out to even more communities, largely with the support of corporate sponsors (such as State Farm, Children International, and the Clinton Global Initiative) and individual donations. The company connects the corporations and other funding sources with NGOs, non-profit organizations, and governments, who distribute Soccket to communities in need. Silverman is also hoping to roll out new accessories, such as a cellphone charger and ball-powered speakers, which give the ball even more capabilities. There is also a sneaky suggestion the ball might be available in North America for retail purchase and Silverman thinks that campers, tech enthusiasts, and ethical consumers in developed countries will also want to snap one up for themselves.
It’s not such a crazy thought after Soccket was featured in a Best Buy commercial. “I’ve become suddenly much more popular with my guy friends who are watching the NBA playoffs,” Silverman says. “We’re actually getting a lot of emails from Best Buy asking us, “’Wait, do we sell this? People keep asking for it.’”
Have you seen Soccket yet? What do you think of the new tech? Let us know in the comments below.