The official ball for the Euro 2012 Football Championship certainly sounds impressive. After all, it’s been developed over a two-year period and tested across eight countries.
Uefa, European football’s governing body, calls the Tango 12 "a modern interpretation of the classic design, including a coloured outline inspired by the flags of the two host nations, Poland and Ukraine”.
Wow. But I'm left with a question. After kicking it around for a couple of hours, can you use it power a lamp or charge a cell phone like the Soccket?
When I first wrote about the Soccket back in the spring of 2010, I loved their pitch; a ball that during normal game play can capture and store energy, which can then later be used to provide a charge for batteries or lights.
Four Harvard undergraduates came up with the idea during a course on innovation they took together in 2008. They wanted to solve a persistent and fundamental problem – millions around the world do not have regular, reliable access to electricity.
"We lose power all the time in Nigeria," says Jessica Matthews, one of those four Harvard students. Matthews, who was born in New York but whose parents are Nigerian, says she thought about her regular visits she to her aunt's house back in Nigeria, where a diesel generator would be cranking away. "I couldn't breathe," she says, "and I couldn't believe that this was normal."
From shared experiences, the Harvard team also knew that many children in the developing world spend their evenings studying under a single streetlight, or worse, next to dangerous, expensive and eco-unfriendly kerosene lamps.
Those same kids, they noted, often spent a great deal of their daylight hours playing football (soccer if you’re an American). They asked: could there be a way to harness some of that energy, and give those kids a more reliable source of power?
The answer, it turned out, was a qualified "yes". They built a prototype inflatable ball in early 2009 which had an induction coil mechanism inside. It stored energy the same way a shake-to-charge flashlight does.
They tested the ball in South Africa in the summer of that year, and found that the energy output was good but not great. The kids, though, really took to the idea, despite the fact the Soccket didn't quite feel or play quite like a regular soccer ball because of the energy-harvesting mechanism inside.
Inspired, Matthews and her classmates decided to keep working on the idea. In 2010, to coincide with the World Cup in South Africa, they released a second prototype. This one didn't need to be inflated. It was built to be harder, and more durable. Inside, Matthews says, the induction coil was replaced by a gyroscopic mechanism. "We realized that the best motion you can capture is the rolling motion of the ball, not the bouncing motion. The ball is always rolling, whether it's on the air or on the ground." She says the new mechanism made the ball three times more energy-efficient per minute of play. Still, the ball had a bit of a wobble.
But the group managed to get the ball out to kids in various countries in Africa and Latin America through local NGOs and sports clubs. They even started a "buy one, give one" style program that allowed people in the developed world to get their own Soccket, while at the same time ensuring that another one would go to a kid in the developing world.
Perhaps most importantly, the project caught the eye of former US President Bill Clinton. It received a relatively small amount of money from the Clinton Global Initiative. And during a panel discussion in April of 2011, Jessica Matthews shared the stage with Clinton, who called it "extraordinary - kick a ball, turn on a light”. He went on to say that the Soccket "gives us a way to bring power, and improve the quality of life, and improve the learning and working capacity of poor families without building an expensive grid.”