Wearable devices are the new big thing in electronics. Many of us are already strapping on a contraption that tracks our steps and other fitness metrics, and smart watches are on the market. But a wearable that has been around for eons is now in on the embedded electronics trend — the shoe.
Electronics in or on shoes isn't exactly an unheard of concept. We already have shoes that light up when we walk and shoe sensors that communicate with fitness apps. And researchers have been working other handy features into footwear, like GPS tracking to help keep tabs on the whereabouts of Alzheimer's patients, and sensors and wireless signals to help locate firefighters and other emergency workers in areas where GPS is likely to fail.
Soon, we'll also have shoes that communicate with us via haptic feedback. You probably haven't given it much thought, but haptic feedback is something you've already likely experienced, as vibrating actuators are already present in a lot of cellphones, tablets and game controllers. This just means that they emit vibrations that we can feel.
One product expected to hit the market running in 2015 is Lechal haptic shoes, designed to sync with a smartphone to provide hands- and eyes-free directions and to act as an activity tracker. The company will also release haptic insoles that you can insert into your regular shoes.
Haptic footwear holds great promise as an aid for the visually impaired, but it could also come in handy for anyone else who wants an inconspicuous wearable that can give directions without requiring that you stare at a smartphone or listen to audio. Read on to find out what's inside these handy fashion accessories.
The Technology Behind Haptic Footwear
Haptic feedback is simply feedback you can feel, usually via vibrations. The tiny technology that makes haptic footwear possible has been around for a while, and it's already present in so many electronic devices we use every day. Haptics can be simple to complex vibrations to convey information, like something particular going on in a game, a certain type of notification on a phone or a subtle vibratory cue to let you know you've successfully hit a virtual button on a tablet. The new Kindle Voyage e-reader provides haptic feedback on page-turns to simulate the feeling of pages sliding against each other. The new Apple Watch includes hardware they call the Taptic Engine that produces tapping and other sensations against the wrist of the wearer to give directions, notifications or even communicate with other Apple Watch users.
The necessary embedded computing components to create haptic feedback are widely available, and like all electronic components, they're getting smaller and smaller. They're also available in low-power varieties that allow for smaller batteries. This means they can be hidden more easily in small wearables, clothing and shoes.
To create haptic feedback, you usually need a microcontroller board, at least one vibrating actuator (which is just a little motor that vibrates on command) and a battery to provide power. Microcontroller boards are like tiny computer motherboards, complete with a processing chip, memory and input/output (I/O) connection points, for which you can write programs to send and receive signals to and from whatever electronic sensors, actuators or other components are connected to them. They usually don't have as much memory or processing capability as your computer's processor, or even your phone's. But they do have enough to hold some programming and to control various basic electronic parts, and they generally take up less space and consume less power.
Arduino is one brand of commercially available microcontroller board. It has a number of models that can be easily purchased (along with compatible electronic components) by hobbyists, researchers, or professionals and programmed with Arduino's open-source language using their integrated development environment (IDE) by connecting the board to a computer. Lots of people and companies have also made boards based on the Arduino, many of which can be programmed with its IDE. Commercial products with embedded electronics are more likely to involve mass-purchased boards, and haptic shoes will likely be no exception, but an Arduino board played a role in the first Lechal prototype.
Other small components, like modules that allow for WiFi, Bluetooth or other wireless communication, can be used to make any wearable haptic feedback items communicate with a smartphone or other device. Some microcontrollers have wireless communication built in.
These components can be used for grand things, like making a robot, or for smaller tasks, like setting off light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or vibrating actuators. Adding all the right components together can allow for communication methods like haptic feedback.
The Lechal Haptic Shoe Prototype
The Lechal haptic shoe was conceived by Anirudh Sharma, then a researcher at Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bangalore, India, as a way to give noiseless walking directions to visually impaired wearers via an affordable device. "Le Chal" means "take me along" in Hindi.
Sharma sketched the first prototype in 2010 and built it (with the help of two others) in 2011. That first build emerged from a Design and Innovation workshop in Pune, Maharashtra, India, held by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab and College of Engineering.
The prototype included an Arduino Lilypad microcontroller, a circular board designed for sewing electronics into wearable fabric items. The board, which has built-in Bluetooth capabilities, was used along with four actuators and a battery. The microcontroller was placed at the heel, and actuators were placed at the front, back, left and right, all within just one shoe.
The original idea was that a smartphone with GPS and compass capabilities would access location and direction data via its Internet connectivity and communicate those directions to the microcontroller, which would signal the actuators to vibrate. Vibration of the right actuator would mean turn right, left actuator would mean turn left, back actuator would mean go back, and front actuator would mean go forward. Sharma also envisioned incorporating a proximity sensor that could detect an obstacle up to 10 feet (3 meters) away, alert the wearer and provide directions to navigate around it.
The prototype received an award, and Sharma continued the work. He eventually quit his job at Hewlett-Packard Labs and partnered with Krispian Lawrence, formerly a patent attorney, to form the company Ducere Technologies. Incidentally, the two were introduced by a friend who happened to be visually impaired, although the idea of the shoe as an aid to the blind started well before they met.
Lechal Haptic Shoes and Insoles
The shoe being developed by Ducere Technologies differs quite a bit from the prototype, but it will still give the user directions via haptic feedback. Instead of one shoe, the technology has been incorporated into both, and either the right or left shoe will vibrate to tell the wearer which way to go. The insoles designed to fit into your regular shoes work the same way.
The technology incorporated into the commercial shoes and insoles likely includes quite different hardware than the prototype, but it still involves microcontrollers that can sync via Bluetooth with a smartphone app (which will be required to use the shoes or insoles), along with batteries, actuators and sensors that allow for even greater functionality. This wearable technology will help anyone navigate by foot via subtle vibrations in the shoes, but it has also been programmed to allow the user to tag locations via a tap of the foot. And fitness tracking capabilities have been worked into the footwear and accompanying app. The haptic footwear has even been designed to beep or buzz when the user gets a certain distance from the smartphone so that he or she knows to grab the phone.
The Lechal app is available for Apple iOS, Android and Windows devices in multiple languages. The app uses the phone's GPS with compass hardware and its Internet capabilities to get Google Maps data for directions. The direction data gets communicated back to hardware in the shoes or insoles, which triggers the actuators in the appropriate one to vibrate when the wearer approaches a turn. The vibrations will also start off weaker and get stronger as the user approaches the intended destination.
Lechal shoes and insoles will come with two lithium polymer batteries that can each go three to five days on one charge. Each battery slips into the back of one of the shoes or insoles.
They also come with an innovative charger that can, in effect, hear and respond to audio. When you snap your fingers, the charger responds with a tone to let you know how far along it is in the charging process. It also has slots for both batteries so you can charge them at same time. The charger includes a USB connector so you can use it to charge a compatible phone or other device. It has 100 - 240 V - 50/60 Hz input and 5V DC 1 Amp output and is compatible with U.S., European or Asian outlets.
The Lechal shoes are made of high-quality polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane, polyester fabric, rubber, EVA foam and other materials. The Lechal insoles are made of polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane and polyester fabric. The materials are antibacterial and washable, after removal of the battery and sensor modules, and they're resistant to rain. The form factor of the shoe is casual and sporty, and will be available in red or black in sizes for men and women. The insoles can be cut down to for a custom fit.
Uses and Advantages of Haptic Footwear
As mentioned earlier, the Lechal shoe conceived as a low-cost option for visually impaired people to help them navigate on their own. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are around 285 million people with visual impairments, about 90 percent of whom live in low-income areas [source: WHO].
The app has accessibility features that don't require the user to have to look at anything on the screen. As designed now, a person can use the accompanying phone app to input his or her destination before leaving, either using voice commands or foot movements. The wearer can then pocket the smartphone and follow the directions that are sent to the shoes. The app can store common destinations, and for areas that aren't easily accessible via Google Maps, the user can have the shoes map the route and use the foot-tap tagging ability to mark any obstacles.
Common aids for the visually impaired include canes, guide dogs, devices that give audio directions and help from other people. Canes can help a person avoid obstacles, and canes with sensors have even been tested and in some cases made available, but they haven't yet gone so far as to provide directions, so the shoes and cane could work in conjunction. Guide dogs are quite helpful for avoiding obstacles and other dangers, but they're expensive, not accessible to everyone, and there are still some places where they aren't allowed. Audio equipment for the visually impaired can be expensive and cumbersome, and having to listen to audio can distract from important audio cues going on around the pedestrian. They also might be hard to hear under noisy traffic conditions.
With haptic feedback, the user has the advantage of being able to continue to hear what's going on around him or her without audio distraction. And one day, if later models of the shoe incorporate proximity sensing, some people may be able to say goodbye to the cane.
Haptic footwear could prove useful to anyone wishing to be directed without having to stare a phone while walking. Walking while distracted by a phone or other devices is thought to be at least partially responsible for an uptick in pedestrian fatalities that started around 2010 [sources: Liberty Mutual, NHTSA, Shaver]. Plus, most of us already wear shoes, so haptic feedback worked into them should be far more unobtrusive than carrying an extra device.
The Lechal shoes, insoles and their accompanying app can also be used as a fitness-tracking system to track steps, activity type, duration, distance, calories and workout goals. It even includes social elements to let you share fitness and destination information with others. This could make it a viable replacement for dedicated fitness trackers.
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.
Haptic Footwear Availability
As of this writing, you can't run to the store and purchase haptic footwear, although if all goes as planned, you'll be able to order them online soon.
Ducere Technologies' Lechal footwear has been undergoing testing at L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, and the company is pairing up with that and other eye institutes and nonprofits around the world in the hopes of providing the shoes to the underprivileged at more affordable prices. Lechal shoes and insoles are slated to start shipping to consumers sometime in 2015, and you can go to their website and put yourself on the pre-order list now. The company also plans to release a software development kit (SDK) in early 2015 that will let developers sync their own apps with the Lechal app.
Ducere plans to release different versions, starting with a basic model that performs navigation only. A version that also detects obstacles is expected later. The initial Lechal shoes and insoles will be priced at around 6,000 rupees in India and between $100 and $150 elsewhere [sources: Coxworth, Mahalingam, Thoppil]. The price of the shoes and insoles is not expected to differ.
Proceeds from the sale will also help subsidize Lechal footwear for people in need through discounts to charitable institutions. The discounts are expected to be 30 to 50 percent as of September 2014, but the company hopes to increase the subsidies as they sell more product [source: Mahalingam].
Right now, Ducere seems closest to having haptic footwear on the market, but with the ready availability of the necessary tiny processors, sensors, actuators, batteries and other components, competitors will likely follow in short order. You could even potentially put a pair together yourself with some electronics and programming tinkering. Google Maps SDKs and application programming interfaces (APIs) are freely downloadable for various platforms, and Arduino and similar boards and accessories are not too terribly expensive, if you want to give it a try.
In any case, we will soon have the option of pocketing our smartphones and letting our shoes tell us where to go.
Author's Note: How Haptic Footwear Works
Haptic shoes and insoles sound like handy new devices that I wouldn't mind owning. I already strap a fitness device onto my wrist every day that syncs with my phone, so putting insoles into my shoes that do the same job (and more) isn't out of the question. And they have more important applications than replacing my watchlike step tracker because they can (and were designed to) help people with visual impairments get around on their own. The fact that buying them might help someone else in need adds to the appeal.
Researching this article has also once again brought me into the world of embedded electronics and kind of makes me want to go buy some Arduino Lilypads and other components and start wiring up all my clothing to do various things. But perhaps, if other people make these wearables available first, I'll just go back to my dream project of making a robot.
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