It is a no brainer that shoes are getting better and smarter by the day. For the last few years, we have witnessed a series of transformations in the shoe industry that have left us wondering what else is still in store. While the shoe making firms have made serious strides in improving the comfort level of their footwear, one area that they have not yet tapped exhaustively is in the “smart-shoe” niche. We are in the age of innovation, where everything has a smart-tag attached to it. Unfortunately, the shoe industry has been lagging behind for a long time and is only until recently that the concept of smart shoes has started to see light of the day.
What could have prompted this snail pace adoption of technology?
The most obvious reason is that shoe companies are only competent in producing shoes. They have no resources, infrastructure or expertise to produce chips, sensors and other hi-tech gadgets. Technological firms on the other hand have the technical know-how of creating gadgets that can be infused in footwear, but lack the massive amount of resources needed to produce shoes in large scale. As a result, only key players in the footwear industry have been able to take advantage of this trend, such as Nike, Adidas, UnderArmour, Skinners, Altra Running, Sensoria and Garmin. However, there have been instances where shoe companies have come to agreement with technological firms to jointly produce smart shoes. A good example of such an agreement would be between Puma and MIT Design Lab.
The year 2011 saw the emergence of “Interactive Haptic Footwear”, which is basically technical jargon for smart shoes. The first interactive haptic footwear, the Altra IQ, was released in 2011 and it featured sensors in its soles. The sensors analyzed a runner’s strides and then delivered the feedback via the phone app and smart watches. Nike and UnderArmour followed suit in 2012 with the Nike+ Training shoe and UA Speedform Gemini 2, respectively. However, Nike’s creation took a serious beating from reviewers and the project stalled before it even took off. The UA Speedform Gemini 2 was a success and became a blueprint for future smart shoes for UnderArmour.
Since then we have seen new entrants into the smart shoe niche. Even the Chinese have recently joined in on the fun. In 2015, Xiaomi introduced the cheapest smart shoe in the market that retailed at a shocking $30 (199 Yuan). The Xiaomi footwear is operated by Mi Fit app and also features Bluetooth connectivity. In 2017, UnderArmour unveiled three more shoes, the Speedform Gemini 3 RE, Speedform Europa RE and Speedform Velocity RE to high acclamation. The following year, the company released the HOVR Phantom and HOVR Sonic shoes. With inbuilt sensors, the shoes have the ability to record various metrics, such as pace, stride, cadence and distance, which are then uploaded to the Map My Run app for analysis.
The failure of the Nike+ Training shoe did not dissuade Nike from the smart shoe niche, but instead it acted as a catalysts for more innovation. Nike’s latest offering the self-lacing HyperAdapt 1.0 is a true game changer. Utilizing a combo of pressure sensors and complex algorithm, the HyperAdapt 1.0 automatically laces when it senses a foot inside. It also features a rechargeable LED light that alerts the user of a tight fit or when the battery is low. After the success of the Altra IQ, Altra Running went under the radar to prepare something even better- the Altra Torin IQ.
Apart from the ultra-thin and lightweight sensors that transmit a number of metrics for each foot, the Altra Torin IQ has a coaching feature that keeps tabs with the runner’s performance. However, the pinnacle of smart shoe technology was reached by none other than Digitsole. While most smart shoes cater to the sports demographic only, Digitsole is very versatile with a range of uses for every person in every field. It is considered the next-gen shoe and future smart shoes will probably emulate it. The Digitsole takes personalization to a whole new level by including health-centered metrics that analyze the user’s calories and fatigue levels. Using this data, the shoe provides a personalized feedback geared towards improving the health of users and preventing them from future injuries. It also includes temperature regulation and auto-lacing features.
What Does the Future Offer?
Judging by the recent developments, we are quite certain that the next frontier for all footwear (not just in sports) will be in the smart-shoe niche. According to Asif Juzar, CEO at Prosportsae.com, the footwear industry is taking leaps and bounds when it comes to adoption of smart technology in its designs. Even though this craze is still in its infancy, people are starting to notice and more firms are now investing in smart shoes. Asif also expressed his optimism that there would be more smart features in the near future and the likelihood of the “shoes dumbing down again will be very minimal”.
Several shoe companies have already deviated from this norm and are already producing smart shoes for other niches, other than athletic footwear. One such company is Zhor Tech, which has created smart shoes for construction workers. Featuring a safety insole sensor, the shoes can detect an accident and immediately alert the manager/supervisor. There is also Lechal by Ducere Technologies, which is designed for visually impaired persons. The shoe boasts of a smart navigation system that syncs with the Lechal app to provide the needed guidance for people who cannot see. Even large tech companies have caught the bug of hi-tech shoes. For instance, Apple is on the verge of making a breakthrough with its own smart shoe named the iShoes.
With all the innovation and resources channeled towards hi-tech shoes, it is really hard to predict the course of action that smart shoes will be taking in the future. For instance, Puma in collaboration with MIT Design Lab are in the process of developing emotional sensitive shoes, while Adidas is busy experimenting on foot biomechanics to create shoes that are customizable to the feet. Who could have thought of that? While shoe companies are busy outdoing each other in the smart shoe realm, the irony is that only a small section of consumers are actually thrilled with the idea hi-tech shoes. Experts are however forecasting that the market for smart shoes will grow considerably in the next five years. While we are not sure if people will lay down their guards for hi-tech footwear, what we are certain is that this trend is not about to slow down very soon.