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Is That a Computer in Your Shoe?

Sensors in sports shoes get all the attention, but other devices can actually identify you by how you walk and help Alzheimer’s patients find their way home

Nike shoe sensor

Can sensors make you jump higher? Photo courtesy of Nike.

It’s not often that shoes make news and when they do, it usually has something to do with Nike and latest sports deity whose feet it has shod.

So it was again earlier this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that when Nike rolls out its LeBron X Nike Plus model this fall, sneakers could break the $300 barrier.

For that tidy sum, you’ll get the same type of shoes LeBron James wore in the Olympics gold medal basketball game in London and you get sensors–four scientifically-placed sensors embedded under each sole. They will measure downward pressure from different points on your foot and, together with an accelerometer, also under the sole, they’ll gather data and send it to your smartphone, which will let you know how high you’ve jumped.

Not that I need sensors to tell me that the answer is “Not very.” Then again, I’m hardly in Nike’s golden demo. Still, while demand for pricey sports shoes has remained steady throught the recession, the sense is that if prices keep climbing, people better get more than a gilded Swoosh for their money. So Nike has also put the sensors in trainer models, allowing the shoes to track and measure a person’s workouts and share that info with his or her smartphone.

Which, if equipped with Siri, will one day be able to let you know how disappointed she is in you.

You are how you walk

Actually, the most intriguing story about shoes this summer came out last month in Pittsburgh. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) are working with a Canadian startup called Autonomous ID to develop biometric shoes that can identify who you are by the way you walk.

Studies have shown that everyone has unique feet and a distinctive gait, a signature as personalized as a fingerprint. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese government, in fact, have spent millions of dollars on gait research.

The CMU team has applied that knowledge to create what they’ve dubbed BioSoles for shoes. They can record the pressure points of someone’s feet, track their gait and use a microcomputer to compare that to a master file already made for that person. If the patterns match, the BioSoles stay silent. If they don’t, they transmit a wireless alarm message.

According to the scientists, the system knows by your third step if you are who you’re supposed to be. In testing so far, they say it’s been accurate 99 percent of the time. Now they’re broadening the sample so that a much wider range of society is tested–thin people, heavy people, athletes, members of different races and cultures, and twins.

How would BioSoles be used? Mainly at military bases and nuclear plants for now, where each employee would have his own shoes. That would provide security that’s effective, but less invasive than other biometric techniques, such as iris scans.

But since the devices are designed to detect changes in gait, some think they could end up being used to help spot early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. One of its first indications is a slowing walk or a change in stride.

Best foot forward

Here are other recent innovations from the shoe biz:

  • At least your shoes will understand you: Engineers in Germany have developed a device called ShoeSense that allows your shoes to read hand gestures and pass on messages to your smartphone. Here’s how it would work: Say you’re sitting in a meeting and you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but don’t want to be rude. So you make a pre-arranged gesture under the table, such as holding up two fingers, and your shoes will tell your phone to send a text you’ve already written.
  • The gaits have opened: A firm based in Oklahoma City, Orthocare Innovations, has created a prosthetic device that closely mimics a human ankle and can be controlled with a smartphone. The device includes a microprocessor, sensors and hydraulics that allow users to make adjustments to changes in conditions, such as moving from a level surface to an incline.
  • Lost and found: There’s now a brand of shoes designed to help find Alzheimer’s patients who wander away. The GPS Smart Shoe has a GPS transmitter embedded in its heel and tracks the person’s location in real time and sends the info to a monitoring station.
  • Hot off the printer: Continuum, a small firm that sells customizable fashion, is now marketing shoes made on a 3D printer. Customers can order different colors, styles or heel lengths. The cost? A cool $900 a pair. (Take that, LeBron).
  • Road zip: To make it easier to pack hiking shoes, Timberland has come out with the Radler Trail Camp shoes. They fold in half and zip shut.
  • Yes, there are bad ideas: Earlier this summer Los Angeles designer Jeremy Scott created for Adidas a model for a sneaker that came with a plastic shackle meant to encircle the leg above each shoe. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said they looked like “slave shoes.” Adidas made them go away.

Photo bonus: Only pictures can do justice to the good–some of best sneaker design innovations–the bad–shoes gone plastic–and the ugly–some of the more hideous things to come with heels.

More from Smithsonian.com

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These Shoes Are Made For Printing

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