Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Haptic Footwear Works

Other Electronic Footwear in the Lab

The founders of Ducere aren't the only ones who've toyed with the idea of turning shoes into electronic devices. But they do appear to be leading the way to bringing haptic footwear to the marketplace.

Another foray into haptic footwear was undertaken by Dhairya Dand of MIT's Media Lab. He developed an insole dubbed SuperShoes that includes three actuators, a touchpad at the toes and a microprocessor. It communicates to an app on a smartphone via Bluetooth, and was designed to learn your routines and tastes, suggest places you might want to visit and provide directions via haptic feedback through the actuators. Unfortunately, there are no current plans to develop the insole for retail.

Some others haven't involved haptics, but they have involved putting processing power into shoes. In 2011, the FCC certified GTX Corp.'s GPS-enabled shoes. The shoes were designed to allow someone to track the wearer of the shoes via a phone app and get an alert if the wearer wandered out of a pre-set area. GPS tracking shoes could be used to locate Alzheimer's patients or children who have wandered off. They could also have other applications, such as fitness tracking.

The KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has been working on putting a microprocessor and sensors into the heel of a firefighter's boot, which would work in conjunction with a wireless unit elsewhere on the uniform to make the emergency worker trackable even when under conditions and in areas (including many meters underground) where GPS might fail.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems has a shoe in the works that incorporates a microcontroller, radio frequency module, accelerometer, GPS sensor, and a battery to transmit information about a runner's form and technique to a smartphone app. The app would give suggestions for changes to things like foot position, running surface and speed in real-time, and it would send the data to a website for more detailed analysis. They hope to bring the shoes to market in 2015.

And back to haptics: Directions and fitness tracking aren't the only potential uses for vibrating actuators in shoes. Researchers have found that subtle vibrations on the soles of the feet can improve balance by increasing foot sensation, which tends to decline with age or some medical conditions. In fact, studies have found vibration on the soles of the feet can improve everyone's balance, not just seniors. But the elderly are more likely to fall because of balance issues and to suffer serious medical consequences when they do [sources: CDC, Shepherd, Wyss Institute]. Researchers worked piezoelectric actuators (which convert electrical energy into mechanical motion) into urethane foam insoles, along with a microcontroller and battery elsewhere on the shoe, to apply vibrations to the soles of the feet, and they found the gadgets greatly decreased seniors' chances of falling [sources: Hsu, Wyss Institute].

Researchers in at the University of Sydney in Australia even toyed with the idea of using haptic shoes to convey stock information to users. We aren't likely to want to interpret something complex like Morse code while walking down the street, but there's lots of potential for alerting us to, or even delivering, time-sensitive information aside from directions via haptic feedback while we're on the go, whether through our phones, watches or shoes.