Monday, November 26, 2012

Close your eyes and tap your heels

How can you tell an extroverted engineer? When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes instead of his own. And now there is a good reason to do it - as new "No place like home" GPS shoes will be pointing to where the person is going. And displaying the progress bar - marking the beginning of the journey with one red light and indicating successful arrival to the place of destination with a green light on the top of the right toes. A red light on the other shoe will  display the correct direction to walk, illuminating on the circle of LEDs like an arrow of the compass. How will the shoes know where to go? By consulting the map uploaded via USB and its own GPS receivers, wirelessly communicating with each other. For future models, you could probably set up WiFi to let your shoes download more information, talk with other people's shoes and modify your route on the go.
So your footware might need its own network access, like agent Maxwell Smart's left shoe with a mobile subscription plan.
The "No place like home" shoes are built around two microcontrollers called Arduinos: A magnet in the right shoe and sensor in the left shoe communicate with each other and with the GPS antenna in the red tag at the back. Clicking the heels starts the GPS. So all you need to do is to close your eyes and tap your heels together. And there will be no need to follow the yellow brick road or say the magic words.

The smart shoes - designed by artist Dominic Wilcox and custom-made by Stamp Shoes might be a bit costly: £1,100 (about $1,750). A bit less sophisticated Aetrex Navistar GPS shoes developed for sufferers of Altzheimer's disease and dementia cost $299.99, and come with two monthly subscription plans - a basic 30 minute tracking plan, which reports every 30 minutes ($34.99) and for an additional $5 per month a premier 10 minute tracking plan. Nike was offering their own GPS footware too, for fitness enthusiasts, but decided that it's cheaper to use iPhone's location sensor to figure distance and serve as a pedometer.

Yet, sensors in high-tech shoes could be helpful. For example, they could detect if their owner is tired or exhausted. Fatigue Monitoring System (FAMOS, recently developed and tested in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) and healthy individuals) continuously measures motions of feet, in addition to electrocardiogram, body-skin temperature and electromyogram. And the system can reliably distinguish the symptoms of fatigue. The shoe sensors could provide a wealth of information about motion and assess such things as the risk of falling. And this information can be combined with data collected through other channels.  Aurametrix, for example, can determine how food, air quality, the weather and various activities affect energy levels and generate suggestions on what to do - at the right time and right place. Systems like Aurametrix could eventually integrate our observations with data coming from smart objects such as shoes and heart monitors, to speed up not only walking but also the understanding of the human body, for a healthier world.


Yu F, Bilberg A, Stenager E, Rabotti C, Zhang B, & Mischi M (2012). A wireless body measurement system to study fatigue in multiple sclerosis. Physiological measurement, 33 (12), 2033-2048 PMID: 23151461

Marschollek, M., Rehwald, A., Wolf, K., Gietzelt, M., Nemitz, G., zu Schwabedissen, H., & Schulze, M. (2011). Sensors vs. experts - A performance comparison of sensor-based fall risk assessment vs. conventional assessment in a sample of geriatric patients BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1472-6947-11-48
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