The Planet

What if Simply Playing Soccer Could Power a Whole Village?

by Mark Hay

September 20, 2014
Photo coutesy of Love Green via Flickr

Usually when a few soccer balls are donated to a rural Mexican town, it doesn’t warrant press coverage. Yet last March TV trucks rolled into Puebla state to watch the distribution of 150 new balls. The cameras were on hand because these were no Adidas or Nike products. These were Uncharted Play’s Soccket balls, built to turn the kinetic energy of play into electrical current. When enough charge is stored up, the ball can be used to power various electrical devices. Since rolling out last year, the Soccket ball has stirred up a great deal of interest, attracting the attention of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, among others, as a potentially powerful tool to bring light to regions of the world where power grids are unreliable or unavailable. Like most early technologies, Soccket is far from perfect—some accounts claim it’s quite buggy. But if comparable products tell us anything, those kinks may smooth out over the next few years, allowing Soccket to lead the way as yet another powerful off-the-grid tool for rural development.

Soccket started out as a class project designed by four Harvard undergrads in 2008. When they first came up with the idea, local engineers and professors told them it would be impossible to make something equally lightweight, durable, functional, and mechanical, but the students barreled ahead, running their initial tests with a hamster ball. Eventually they settled on a system that uses a sliding magnetic slug. The magnet shunts back and forth inside a stabilized inductive coil within the ball, storing generated power in a capacitor. And so, these students created light—three hours of LED light for a quarter hour’s play, to be exact. After a little jiggering, they developed a fully kickable prototype, just a tad heavier than a FIFA regulation soccer ball, and brought it for testing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In 2011, realizing the potential of their product, the friends founded Uncharted Play to develop and distribute the Soccket and other products.

German television personality Jan Hahn and model Barbara Meier with the soccket

Over the past three years, the foursome has made the Soccket deflation-proof, water resistant, and higher capacity. They’ve begun work on an electrifying jump rope and are toying with designs for an American football and skateboard as well. After successfully raising over half a million dollars on crowdfunding sites, they decided to scale up their production, aiming to manufacture at least 50,000 balls for distribution in Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and the United States. Realizing that the balls could target children for theft, the team now distributes them to schools in local communities, incentivizing attendance both for fun and for the potential to bring home an electrical charge at night.

Light seems like such a small thing to those of us who can access it with the flip of a switch, but historically it’s the difference between night and day in terms of development. The advent of light, far from simply extending the amount of time a child can study, has historically correlated to massive jumps in a society’s productive capacity, and cheap electric light is the greatest jump of all. For the 1.3 billion people without access to electric light, even a simple technology like the Soccket, which isn’t nearly as reliable or high capacity as a power grid (or even an off-the-grid power generator), can make a serious difference in lifestyle.

Photo coutesy of Uncharted Play

Unfortunately, early reports claim that the Soccket does not last very long. A reporter visiting Puebla a year after the first 150 balls were distributed found only one functioning model, which flickered on and off. The remainder broke within months. Kickstarter supporters have also complained that their Socckets were shoddy or defective. Uncharted Play claims it is addressing these early design flaws and partner organizations have floated the idea of hosting local workshops on how to repair a ball, but it’s unclear whether or not these fixes will undue the negative press trailing a product that may have hit the ground too hard and too soon.

Even if Uncharted Play does manage to fix the kinks, they face the hurdle of comparative cost for donors. Solar lamps have become incredibly cheap in recent years, retailing from $10 per cheap power-storing model to $45 for the most rugged and resistant. And a wide range of NGOs and corporations have already distributed hundreds of thousands of lamps around the world, even founding entrepreneurial programs by which locals sell lamps to families who are willing to pay a premium as they realize that solar will be, in the long term, far cheaper than traditional fuels. Compared to that, the Soccket retails for up to $99.

Photo courtesy of Hammacher Schlemmer

But the Soccket is an early technology, and precedent suggests that, given a few years, functionality will increase while costs plummet. Take the example of ice cream maker balls: Sold as far back as 2006 and based on older designs, these devices were billed as the gamification of the sometimes daunting process of home ice cream production. They used the agitation of physical motion to mix air into cream, milk, sugar, and flavorings, churning inside the ball and held against a compartment of ice and rock salt, so kids could play towards a rewarding treat. The only problem was the were heavy as hell, noisy, and delicate—they could not be kicked or dropped, only lightly rolled back and forth, and required great maintenance. And they only yielded two to four cups of ice cream, leading many children and parents to lose interest quickly.

Eight years after the early models hit the market, homeware producer Hammacher Schlemmer introduced a new iteration this year, the Shake, Rattle and Roll ice cream maker. Lightweight (2.5 pounds compared to the previous 9) and coated in soft rubber, the new model can be thrown, rolled, and used for gentle games of soccer without suffering defects. And it retails for under $35.

Granted, agitating cream is a far easier task than creating light. But experimentation, feedback, and development in gamified ice cream makers led to durability and cost efficiency. So we have every reason to hope that, with time and effort, the Soccket and its successor products will follow suit. And when they do, they’ll provide a much more secure, universal, and entertaining source of light and energy than meteorologically-limited solar panels.

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What if Simply Playing Soccer Could Power a Whole Village?