Saturday, April 07, 2018

Shoes and Wearable Technology: Why has it never really taken off?

The latest in wearable shoe technology will be on show at Mobile World Congress 2016 (MWC 2016) in Barcelona. On show will be Samsung’s Iofit a new smart sport shoe crammed full with pressure sensors and accelerometers in the sole of the shoe. Designed, according to the manufacturers, to help athletes and their coaches access data about individual’s performance. Data is streamed directly to an app on a smartphone or tablet, which displays the wearer's weight distribution in real time while a built-in video-recording feature can also sync up footage filmed from a mobile device with the data captured through the shoes. The company are keen to embed their technology into third-party shoes, to attract brand loyal customers. The smart shoes will be released later this year, with the general fitness incarnations costing $US149 and the golf versions costing $US199.

Shoes, it appears, present a more stable place to add useful electronics than other article of clothing simply because they do not require to be washed or cleaned. However, despite many attempts, to date, the inclusion of micro technology into footwear has had limited success. The main complication is the electric charges generated by walking are low and unable to drive anything other than very small currents.

In the beginning sports shoe companies tried (and failed) to harness potential but rarely progressed beyond prototype novelty lights, time pieces and podometers. Bluetooth technology helped and Adidas-Salomon, had a prototype with embedded microchips in the heel to gauge heel strike compression. The data was relayed to a microprocessor, housed in the arch, and depending on the program altered the properties of the shock-absorption provided by the shoe. The aim was to make the shoe adjust to changing conditions and customise the footwear to the runner's particular style while in use. The eagerly awaited footwear has never appeared.

The military have showed some interest in smart shoe technology for the purpose of global positioning identification. GPS technology incorporated into shoes allows the person to be located anywhere in the world. By pressing a button in the fabric of the shoe can send a distress signal. Quantum Satellite Technology shoes TM were developed by Isaac Daniel.

The problem with GPS is it only works where a receiver can pick up a signal from satellites. Under these circumstances where reception drops to zero it is important to have an alternative system.

Professor Dr. Alonzo Kelly and his team at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center developed a wearable suite of sensors that measure footsteps to analyse a person’s location. The system uses dead reckoning, a navigation method that calculates current position based on the direction and speed a user has moved away from a known starting point. The Micro-Inertial Navigation Technology (MINT) comprises of a computer and three sensor units embedded in a pair of boots. Each heel houses an inertial measurement unit (IMU). The ball area of one of the boots is fitted with a tiny radar device that measures the distance each IMU travels with each footstep. According to Professor Kelly MINT can provide a wearer’s position accurate to better than 33 feet within 30 minutes of walking around. Funding for the project came from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the military version of the MINT unit is more accurate. MINT is not yet on the market.


After Boston University researchers discovered when people stood on a gently vibrating platform despite being unable to detect vibrations they swayed several millimetres less in each direction. Using "galvanic vestibular stimulation" (GVS) a small, painless electric current was applied to behind each ear. The current affects the firing rate of the nerves that carry signals from the inner ear to the brain and by boosting the signal behind one ear and dampening it at the other there is a shift in the perception of what is vertical. This gives the impression of movement which in turn alters sway. The brain thinks the body has moved, and tries to compensate as a result. Whilst the nervous system is quick to respond it soon learns to ignore regular signals, so the technique only works if the information coming in is genuine noise. Researchers have pioneered "stochastic resonance" an effect which makes a weak signal easier to detect when it is superimposed on a background of random noise signals. They built a vibrating insole and when placed in the shoe this provides a source of noise which could help people with certain balance disorders.

Clinical trials were encouraging and preliminary results indicate benefits to both elderly and people in their twenties. The research team hoped to develop a vibrating insole that can monitor a person's body and environment to influence their balance in a more targeted way. The hope is this might help people to stay upright easily when moving vehicles or ships, or correct people who sway as they walk. Another potential use might be in virtual reality. Electrodes behind the ears linked to a VR headset could make the sensation of movement completely convincing. Follow up studies have demonstrated vibratory insoles significantly improved performance on the timed "Get Up and Go" test, reduced the range of postural sway, reduced the variability of walking, and finally the effect of the insoles persisted throughout the course of a day.

Boston University researchers have discovered that vibrating insoles improve the balance in people diagnosed with cerebral vascular incidents (a stroke) or diabetic neuropathy, i.e. a common nerve problem that affects the sensation in the feet. Previous research has shown sub-sensory mechanical noise delivered to the feet via vibrating insoles can help people maintain better balance. Insoles containing two vibrating elements on each forefoot and one on each heel were fitted into the shoes of subjects. The researchers tested the effects of the vibrating insoles on sway parameters in 15 patients with diabetic neuropathy and 15 patients with stroke. Data from a previous study of the insoles in 12 healthy elderly patients was also included for comparison. The researchers looked at five traditional sway parameters and three derived from random-walk analysis and all were reduced significantly with the noise application in all of the subjects. The vibration, adjusted to a sub-sensory level, appears to "tickle" neurons, making them more sensitive to stimuli that are present during standing. Additional research is needed to investigate how the technology may benefit patients with stroke affecting different parts of the brain and other diseases.

An IT Engineer from Rajasthan Technical University developed a system that offered non-obtrusive navigation for the visually impaired. Anirudh Sharma developed the Le Chal (Hindi for ‘Take me there’) system after his grandfather was diagnosed with diabetes.

Krispian Lawrence and Anirudh Sharma wanted to use technology to aid the sight challenged and designed the world’s first interactive haptic (touch feedback) footwear. Le Chal Shoe (Ducere Technology ) was launched in Mumbai is a made-in-India shoe-smartphone combination navigation device that has taken wearable technology to a whole new level. The shoes guide the user towards their destination through simple vibrations. The user tells the phone his desired destination, which is translated into electronic commands using voice-recognition software. The app, which can be programmed to run in the background, fetches the local map of the area. The phone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) tracks the person’s location in real-time, telling the actuator to vibrate when it is time to turn. The side of the shoe where the vibration is felt indicates which way to go. The vibration is weak in the beginning of the journey and starts to grow stronger as the destination approaches. The app is compatible with both Android and iPhone devices and most of the operations can be performed using the volume keys. Besides the navigation, one can use the footwear for fitness and trekking too. The shoe pod is equipped with an obstacle-detection mechanism. A sensor in the tip of the shoe, devised by Lawrence, scans the vicinity using sonar, which emits ultrasounds that bounce off obstacles, indicating their presence. There is also an emergency contact option on the phone which alerts monitors if there is a problem. The shoes were tested at the LV Prasad Eye Institute and are now available Lechal .

Reviewed 07/04/2018

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