The three products that the human body must interface with the most are the seat we sit in, bed we sleep in, and our shoes. We’re going to take a couple minutes to explore the future world of shoes.With the advent of inexpensive imbedded microprocessors and the proliferation of sensors, transducers, and transceivers, a whole world of possibilities begins to arise for the lowly shoe. The 64-bit chips that run the Nintendo 64 video games sold for $1,000 in 1993, now sell for under $20. The world of embedded-chip technology is a very competitive marketplace, creating bargains for end users. Some chips that run in cars and microwaves cost less than $1.
Many people assume that with all of the design work being done by the shoe industry giants such as Nike, Adidas, and AirWalk that few possibilities are left for engineering the next generation shoes. But the creative thinkers at The DaVinci Institute think otherwise.
Let’s first start with the problem of how the bottom of the foot comes in contact the innersole of the shoe. Even with better contours and the use of advance foam technologies, the factory made shoe does a poor job of matching the nuances of the highly individualized foot. People wearing even the most expensive shoes will develop pressure points, hot spots, and various discomforts while walking great distances.
The solution for this centers around expansive polymer gel technology. This technology utilizes a micro voltage to expand or contract a special formulated gel. If, for example, the sole of the shoe was fabricated with hundreds of gel-cells, each tied to a pressure sensor, the “smart shoe,” using a special embedded microprocessor, would be able to automatically expand and contract gel-cells to maintain an even pressure along the primary contact surface of the foot. By doing this, the weight of the body would be evenly distributed on the foot, eliminating the localized pressure points. The need for most of today’s knee replacement and hip replacement surgery could be eliminated with the cushioning effect of the technology just described.
Another common problem with shoes is heat build-up. Most shoes are not allowed to breathe at the right times and in the right places. This is another problem that can be handled with “smart shoe” technology. Once again, expansive polymer gel technology can be used to open and close “pores” on the surface of the shoes. Temperature sensors lining the inside of the shoes will signal embedded microprocessors to open or close the pores. For people living in high humidity areas, the use of micro-fans could be employed to further dissipate heat and perspiration.
Further advances in the world of smart materials will open up additional possibilities. For people walking on a variety of surfaces, special tread-altering designs will maximize traction by automatically deciding on the best “grip” to match the walking surface.
Moisture sensors will cause the shoe to convert to waterproof mode. Cold and freezing temperatures will open air pockets in the outer surface of the shoe, creating the necessary R-value to keep the foot warm.
Shoelaces will be replaced with a “foot-gripping” system that clings to the foot without creating pressure points. The shoe itself will be designed to flex with each movement, eliminating inner friction on the surfaces of the foot.
Medical features could be included in the design. Shoes could automatically test the wearer’s blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration. Through perspiration sampling, smart shoes could inform wearers, for example, if they have been eating too much salt or create a nutritional analysis based on the person’s activity level.
Advanced concepts include such things as adding a physical-assist feature so runners could become better runners, or jumpers could become better jumpers. In a dark closet, the shoes could “light up” when you call their name. And advanced tread technology could make shoes that would actually come to you when you call their name. Or the shoes could move the wearer along while they simply stand motionless in them.
So you see the world of footwear has lots of room for improvement. We may not see shoes exactly like I have described, but smart product technology is definitely changing our approach to product design.
By Thomas Frey