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Helmet PC aims to score with football fans

Start-up TouchDown Industries thinks that a slew of rabid football fans will help its novelty PC succeed where others have failed.

Start-up TouchDown Industries is offering a new tool for the Monday-morning quarterback.

The Fremont, Calif., company has created the Helmet PC, a 7-inch-wide, 9-inch-tall Windows desktop PC that fits inside a football helmet.

Although the PC market is a rough-and-tumble business, TouchDown isn't attempting to outplay titans such as Dell. Instead, the start-up wants to connect with the National Football League's most rabid fans--people like its founders--and thus win a portion of the multibillion-dollar market for NFL-licensed collectables.

"I could build a computer like a Dell or a Gateway for $499, but I don't want to," said Michael Denney, one of the company's founders, a computer hobbyist and, most importantly, an Oakland Raiders fan. "Our market is really the NFL fans."

Denney got the idea for the company in January 2003, while shopping for parts to build a friend a new PC shortly after the Raiders won a spot in the Super Bowl.

"We were wandering around Fry's, and all of a sudden, the idea that 'I wonder why they don't make a case like a Raider helmet'--because we were talking about the game we'd just been to and the upcoming Super Bowl---popped into my head," Denney said. Then "I asked, 'Would you buy it?' and he said, 'Heck yeah.'"

Denney said he returned home, sat down with one of his sons' football helmets and began figuring a way to make the Helmet PC work. He spent months designing and testing the machine, and, ultimately, setting up TouchDown as a business.

Because of his need to fit a PC inside the small confines of a football helmet, Denney turned to Mini-ITX, a small, 6.7-inch by 6.7-inch motherboard format, invented by chipmaker Via Technologies. Via designed the board format to foster the development of smaller, quieter, more power-efficient PCs. The motherboard has inspired enthusiasts to make PCs out of toasters and typewriters. It works fine for helmets as well.

TouchDown's most basic Helmet PC, the TD-500, starts at $599 without a helmet or monitor. The company builds each machine to order, allowing customers to custom-configure their machine with a range of options and, of course, a variety of team helmets.

Helmet PCs can be fitted with either a Via's C3 processor or an Intel Pentium 4. Customers can dictate their own RAM allotments and hard-drive sizes, and choose from several different optical drives, including a DVD burner.

The machines can wear a wide range of NFL, college and even arena league team helmets manufactured by Riddell Sports Group. Customers can purchase a replica helmet from TouchDown, which will install it, for about $100. Or they can fit the PC into a helmet they already have.

Historically, novelty-design PCs haven't fared well. Machines such as the Barbie PC for children have come and gone rather quickly, but that hasn't hurt Touchdown's drive. Denney said he believes that there's a market of at least 8 million fans--each of the 32 NFL teams in the United States has a core fan base of about 250,000 people--that have the right mix of football desire and income to purchase a Helmet PC.

Selling PCs to a fraction of those fans would make him happy, Denney said.

Denney said he's also heard from a lot of stock car fans who think a NASCAR-related PC would be a good idea. But the company plans to stay focused on the gridiron for now.