Forget wristables, companies are setting their sights on smart shoes

Updated on: Dec 07, 2016
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Smartwatches weren't quite game changers, so will connected footwear fare any better?

There are mixed signals coming out of the global wearables market. According to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC), the worldwide wearables market is expected to see total shipments rise from 79 million in 2015 to 101.9 million in 2016 and 213.6 million in 2020.

At the same time, there's no shortage of disappointment in the wearables industry, specifically for smartwatches, which seem to do little better than fitness bands with a smattering of notifications from the phone they're connected to. Recently, Lenovo's head of product development said that they were not ready just yet to release the next generation of the Moto 360, because there just isn't enough pull in the market. The Moto 360 is the reference smartwatch for Google's Android Wear platform, which itself is due for a version upgrade but has been delayed to sometime early next year. There are reports of Intel backing away from wearables and cutting their division for this category but this isn't a certainty. FitBit is about to buy Pebble, makers of the original smartwatch. Fitness bands have just been shown to have grown by 3 per cent in the previous quarter.

But we tend to think of wearables only as wrist wear, which of course, isn't true at all. Many companies believe it's the feet that have it. And now there are optimistic figures predicted for smart footwear. More than 6 million units of smart footwear will ship in 2021, up from just 300,000 this year, ABI Research says. What is it about footwear that will work where smartwatches fall short?

Futuristic footwear

And now who's getting into smart shoes but airlines. Virgin America has a product it calls First Class Shoes and it does surprising things. First Class Shoes has a Wi-Fi hotspot of its own, mood lighting along strips on the side, it can play movies, and charge your phone. The catch is that there's only one pair of them and it was up for bidding on EBay. It took over eight months to create it. EasyJet calls its smart shoes Sneakairs that has Google Maps integration so that the user can explore new cities with navigation-related cues buzzing through from the shoes. Putting a whole screen into shoes isn't a new idea.

Back in 2015, Lenovo showcased a smart shoes concept from its research lab at its TechWorld event, where it focuses on future technologies and innovations. The smart shoes had a full screen built-in. Again in 2016, Lenovo came up with a concept pair of shoes with a step and calorie counter and a way of sensing the wearer and lighting up inside. Then there's an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign putting up the idea for another set of hi-tech shoes or 'customisable mid-top e-sneakers' called Vixole. These are filled with sensors and flexible LED screens, which apparently wearers must use to view designs, photos from the smartphone and animations. Meanwhile, someone will probably fall because they're not looking where they're going. They also have wireless charging, step-tracking, embedded motion sensors for capturing real-time data, and finally there are open APIs because the campaigners are hoping developers will make something useful for the shoes.

Feet on the ground

There are, of course, more realistic and practical uses of smart shoes, top among them being the measurement of steps, strides, pace and other parameters for runners. Nike leads in this category. Smart shoes are also being developed for navigation, including one product developed in India called LeChal which doesn't seem to be particularly in evidence anywhere. In India, a startup called Boltt Sports Technologies has been working on smart shoes and fitness bands with sports tech firm Garmin that have just been introduced and beginning a Kickstarter campaign. These products are focusing on AI (Artificial Intelligence) rather than on gimmicky extras. Boltt gathers its products into a fitness kit, which includes smart shoes, smart band and health and training apps working together and providing fitness services provision to schools, gyms, sports institutions etc, by collaborating with them. Boltt's smart shoes are designed to track an athlete’s biomechanical data, measuring parameters like energy bounce back and impact absorption, supportive cushioning balance, and a balanced gripping ground control for natural movement. There's also a stride sensor that can be used in any regular pair of shoes to track physical activity. To complete the health picture, there's a smart band for sleep tracking and monitoring heart rate The key however is the fitness training through Boltt's app, which tracks metrics such as speed, distance, time, cadence, calories, running route mapping, acceleration, round impact time, velocity etc. The combination leads to achieving goals such as fat burn, calorie loss, stamina building, and speed enhancement. It helps prevents injury; improves running technique and gives real time guidance. The AI gives actionable insights by analysing workouts in a meaningful way with progress reports and competitive analysis.

Footwear is thought to be gathering a lot of data being missed out by wrist wear. The extent of pressure placed on the feet for example is just one parameter that tells you a lot about the gait and the health of the wearer. Overall though, the fate of smart shoes is as much in flux as that of wrist and other wearables.

Published on January 16, 2018

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