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Originally published Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 9:35 PM

UW football experimenting in practice with helmet cams

It was one of Contour's cameras that UW coach Steve Sarkisian affixed to his quarterbacks for the school's Spring Game last April.

Seattle Times staff reporter

YouTube | Keith Price helmet-cam video

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As is often the case with great ideas, it started rather innocently.

University of Washington business students Marc Barros and Jason Green, each also avid skiers, needed an entry for an entrepreneurial contest. Hey, they thought, why don't we figure out how to attach a camera to a ski helmet and film our runs?

"We really just wanted to show our friends what we were doing," he said.

The contraption of a camera connected to a battery-powered camcorder won third place in the Business Plan Competition and $20,000. And that helped them start a Seattle-based company, Contour, that last year was rated as one of the fastest growing companies in the nation by Inc. Magazine.

The hands-free cameras have been used largely by skiers, cyclists, hunters and similar outdoor enthusiasts, but recently have begun to creep into widespread use in team sports such as football, putting a whole new spotlight on the company.

It was one of Contour's cameras that UW coach Steve Sarkisian affixed to his quarterbacks for the school's Spring Game last April. A video of a couple of minutes of Keith Price wearing one was linked by national websites and has had roughly 35,000 views on YouTube.

Little known at the time was that Barros, the CEO of the company, is a former soccer player at Issaquah High and UW, attending Washington from 2000 to 2003.

"Pretty exciting," said Barros of the publicity that has begun to come to the company from the use of the cameras by UW, as well as Notre Dame and by NFL quarterbacks Michael Vick and Peyton Manning, and receiver Wes Welker during a Pro Bowl practice.

Sarkisian said that to the general fan, the video helps give a realistic look at what it's like to be a quarterback.

"For so long everyone has said, 'Gosh, I wish I could see what the quarterback sees. What that experience is like,' " said Sarkisian, a college quarterback at Brigham Young and later in the Canadian Football League. "And it's the closest I've seen to the reality of what a quarterback is truly seeing."

What struck many observers watching the video, including Barros, was the speed of the game.

"We were surprised how fast those guys are," Barros said. "The speed is just the most impressive part."

Sarkisian said that as a coach, there is huge potential value in being able to eavesdrop on the quarterback on the field.

"You can mike him up and listen to him talk and call plays and all that," he said. "But it's another thing to have that miked up and not just have film of him but actually see what he is remotely looking at. You don't necessarily see where his eyes are, but at least what he's going through from a timeline emotionally and what he sounds like. So it works hand-in-hand for us.

"It gave us a pretty good perspective what he's like in and out of the huddle and getting plays and his ability to get to the next snap. All of those things really came into play."

(By the way, Sarkisian noted that the plays Price is calling on the video don't necessarily correspond with what the viewer then sees being run — the school took some editing liberties in case future opponents might have decided to watch.)

The cameras, which weigh 5.2 ounces, may be worn on top of the helmet instead of on the side, giving the best possible view of what the quarterback is seeing. And for now, only quarterbacks in non-contact periods can wear them since obviously any other player could get hit in the helmet and the camera broken.

Barros promises the company will continue to evolve.

After winning the $20,000, he had his uncle co-sign on a loan for another $50,000 to get the company started in 2003. The first office was in a warehouse with no heat in Mountlake Terrace. "There was just two of us in a room," he said. "I wouldn't let my mom visit."

From those humble beginnings, Contour now has more than 50 employees working out of a downtown Seattle office.

Its latest innovation is cameras with real-time GPS (which might actually be handy for all those Little League parents who Barros says buy them to put on their kids playing in the outfield).

Sarkisian, meanwhile, said the spring experiment with the cameras will continue.

"I'm not sure if it's an everyday operation for us, but it's definitely something we can use going forward," he said.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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