How Haptic Footwear Works

Wearable devices are the coolest thing in electronics now. A lot of us are already using a contraption that monitors our steps and other fitness parameters. A wearable around for years is now in on the embedded electronics trend,is the shoe.

Electronics in or on shoes are not totally strange concepts. We have seen shoes that light up when walking and shoe sensors that link up with fitness apps. And researchers have been working on several other handy features into footwear,such as GPS tracking to assist in knowing the whereabouts of Alzheimer's patients, sensors and wireless signals to assist in locating firefighters and other emergency workers in places where GPS may fail.


Very Soon, we will have shoes that communicate with us using a haptic feedback. You may not have thought about it , but haptic feedback is already around you,some of the experiences include vibrating actuators present in numerous cellphones, tablets and game controllers. This translates to them emitting vibrations that we can feel.

A product expected to hit the market back in 2015 is the Lechal haptic shoes,developed to interface with a smartphone to give directions and act as an activity tracker. The firm will also launch haptic insoles that  can be inserted to fit into common shoes.

Haptic footwear has a very high potential to act as an aid for the visually impaired, it can also be handy for anybody who needs a hidden wearable that is able to provide directions without need for you to look directly at a smartphone or listen to audio. 

Backstory Of Haptic Footwear

Haptic feedback is feedback you are able to feel,through vibrations. The miniature technology used in making haptic footwear has been in use for some time ,it is present in electronic devices we use day in day out. Haptics can range from simple to complex vibrations to relay information, like something taking place in a game, a peculiar type of notification on a eor a gentle vibratory hint to alert you,when you've succeeded in striking a button on a tablet.

The latest Kindle Voyage e-reader uses haptic feedback when a page turns to bring to life the feeling of pages sliding over each other. The recent Apple Watch is fitted with hardware known as the Taptic Engine ,it generates tapping and other sensations against the wrist of the wearer to provide directions, notifications and even hook up with other Apple Watch users.

The important embedded computing parts to develop haptic feedback are readily available, and like any other electronic parts, they're getting smaller by the day. They are freely available in low-power types that make use of smaller batteries. This translates that they can be concealed readily in small wearables, clothing and shoes.

To make haptic feedback, you will require a microcontroller board, at least a vibrating actuator - a little motor that vibrates on command and a battery to power it up. Microcontroller boards are mini computer motherboards, fitted with a processing chip, memory and input/output (I/O) connection points, for which you can write programs to send and receive signals to and from any electronic sensors, actuators or other components hooked up to them. They don't have as much memory or processing ability as your computer's processor, or a mobile phone. But are able to store some amount of programming and to control several basic electronic parts, and generally consume less space and power.

Arduino is a brand of commercially available microcontroller boards. It has numerous models that can be bought,accompanied with compatible electronic parts by hobbyists and programmed with Arduino's open-source language using an integrated development environment (IDE) by hooking up the board to a computer. Several people and companies have made boards using the Arduino, lots of which can be programmed with its IDE. Commercial products with embedded electronics are likely to have mass-purchased boards, and haptic shoes is not an exception, but an Arduino board played a major role in the foremost Lechal prototype.

Smaller parts like modules for WiFi,Bluetooth or other wireless communication, can be used to develop any wearable haptic feedback device to communicate with a smartphone or other device. Certain microcontrollers come with wireless communication.

These parts can be used for making great things like building a robot, or for smaller jobs,such as powering light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or vibrating actuators. Putting all the right parts together allows for communication means like haptic feedback.


The Lechal Haptic Shoe Prototype

The Lechal haptic shoe was thought of by Anirudh Sharma, a researcher at Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bangalore, India, as a means to provide noiseless walking directions to visually impaired wearers by means of an affordable device. "Le Chal" simply means "take me along" in Hindi.

Sharma drew the diagram of the foremost prototype in 2010 and developed it with two others,back in 2011. The foremost build came from a Design and Innovation workshop right in Pune, Maharashtra, India, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Media Lab and College of Engineering.

The prototype includes the following: an Arduino Lilypad microcontroller, a circular board made for sewing electronics into wearable fabric items. The board,fitted with Bluetooth capabilities, was used together with four other actuators and a battery. The microcontroller was put at the heel, and actuators were located at the front, back, left and right, all in one shoe.

The original concept was that a smartphone  with GPS and compass capabilities could access location and direction data using its Internet connectivity and relay those directions to the microcontroller, which would instruct the actuators to vibrate. Vibration of the needed actuator would translate to turn right, left actuator translate to turn left, back actuator would translate to move back, and front actuator would translate to move forward. Sharma also thought about including a proximity sensor that will detect an obstacle up to 10 feet (3 meters) away, signify the wearer and give directions to move round it.

The prototype got an award, and Sharma proceeded with the work. He later quit his job at Hewlett-Packard Labs and partnered with Krispian Lawrence, a former patent attorney, to found the company Ducere Technologies. Although, the pair were introduced by a friend who happens to be visually impaired, the concept of the shoe as an aid to the blind commenced before they met.


Lechal Haptic Shoes and Insoles

The shoe being developed by Ducere Technologies is a bit different from the prototype, but it will still feed the user directions through haptic feedback. Both shoes are fitted with the technology, and the right or left shoe may vibrate to signal the wearer, which direction to move. The insoles were developed to enter regular shoes operate in a similar way.

The technology fitted into the commercial shoes and insoles may come with a differing hardware to the prototype, but it still uses microcontrollers that is able connect through Bluetooth using a smartphone app, together with batteries, actuators and sensors that allows for highers functions. This wearable technology will assist anybody navigate by foot through little vibrations in the shoes, but it has also been conditioned to let the user tag locations with a tap of the foot. And fitness tracking capabilities have been incorporated into the footwear and accompanying app. The haptic footwear has been conditioned to signify when the user reaches a particular distance from the smartphone so that he or she knows when to get hold of the phone.

The Lechal app is available for Apple iOS, Android and Windows devices in several languages. The app utilizes the phone's GPS with compass hardware and its Internet capabilities to obtain Google Maps data for directions. The direction data gets transmitted back to the hardware in the shoes, which triggers the actuators in the needed one to vibrate when the wearer reaches a turn. The vibrations will commence off weaker and get stronger as the user reaches the intended destination.

Lechal shoes and insoles will be fitted with two lithium polymer batteries that can each go three to five days on a single charge. Each battery fits into the back of one of the shoes or insoles.

They also come with an innovative charger that can hear and respond to audio. When you snap your fingers, the charger responds using a tone that allows you know how far along it is in the charging process. It also has slots for both batteries so you can charge them as well. The charger includes a USB connector so you can use it to charge a compatible phone or another device. It has 100 - 240 V - 50/60 Hz input and 5V DC 1 Amp output and is compatible with U.S., European or Asian outlets.

The Lechal shoes are made with very high quality polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane, polyester fabric, rubber, EVA foam and some other materials. The Lechal insoles are made of polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane and polyester fabric. These materials are antibacterial and washable, after removal of the battery and sensor modules, and they are water resistant. The form factor of the shoe is very casual and sporty, and is available in red or black in with different sizes for men and women.

The insoles can be cut down for a custom fit.The Lechal shoes are made of high-quality polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane, polyester fabric, rubber, EVA foam and some other materials. The Lechal insoles are made of polyurethane, thermoplastic polyurethane and polyester fabric. The materials are antibacterial and washable, after removal of the battery and sensor modules, and they're resistant to rain. The form factor of the shoe is casual and sporty, and will be available in red or black in sizes for men and women. The insoles can be cut down to for a custom fit.


Uses and Advantages of Haptic Footwear

As said earlier, the Lechal shoe was conceived as a low-cost alternative for visually impaired people to help them move on their own. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are nearly 285 million people with visual impairments, nearly 90 percent of whom live in low-income areas.

The app possesses accessibility features ,so that the user need not have to stare at the screen for anything. As programmed, a person can utilize the coupled phone app to input his or her destination before leaving, either using voice commands or foot movements. The wearer can pocket the smartphone and follow the directions that are relayed to the shoes. The app can store common destinations, and for places that are not readily accessible through Google Maps, the user can make the shoes map the route and use the foot-tap tagging capability to note any obstacles.

Common aids for the visually impaired includes canes, guide dogs, devices that provide audio directions and assistance from other individuals. Canes can assist a person avoid obstacles, and canes fitted with sensors have been tested and in some cases made available, but they have not gone as far as providing directions, so the shoes and cane could work in unison. Guide dogs are very helpful in avoiding obstacles and other dangers, but they are very costly, not affordable by most people, and there are some areas where they are not welcomed.

Audio devices for the visually impaired can be very expensive and cumbersome, and listening to audio can cause distract from important audio cues going on around the pedestrian. They also may be difficult to perceive under noisy conditions.

With haptic feedback, the user is at advantage of being able to continue to perceive happenings around him or her without audio distraction. And in the nearest future, subsequent models of the shoe may be fitted with proximity sensing.

Haptic footwear can be very useful to anyone wanting to be directed without having to look at a phone while moving. Walking while distracted by a mobile phone or other devices is acclaimed to be somewhat responsible for increase in pedestrian fatalities that started around 2010. 

The Lechal shoes, insoles and their following apps can also be employed as a fitness-tracking system to monitor steps, type of activity , duration, distance, calories and workout objectives. It also includes social components to allow you share fitness and destination information with your friends. This can make it a very good alternative for known fitness trackers.

Other Electronic Footwear in the Lab

The founders of Ducere are not the only people who have experimented with the concept of converting shoes into electronic devices. But they seem to be the lead in bringing haptic footwear to the public.
Another in-road in haptic footwear was taken by Dhairya Dand of MIT's Media Lab. He made an insole known as SuperShoes that includes three actuators, a touchpad at the toes and a microprocessor. It hooks up to an app on a smartphone through Bluetooth, and was made to master your daily routines and tastes, predict places you may want to visit and give directions through haptic feedback from the actuators. Unassumingly, there are no present plan to package the insole for the marketplace.

Some others do not involve haptics, but they have included fixing processing power in shoes. In 2011, the FCC licensed GTX Corp.'s GPS enabled shoes. The shoes were made to let someone track the wearer of the shoes using a phone app and receive an alert if the wearer wandered  off a pre-programmed area. GPS tracking shoes can be employed to find Alzheimer's patients or children who have strayed off. They may also have other applications, like fitness tracking.

The KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has been working on including a microprocessor and sensors in the heel of a firefighter's boot, which would work in unison with a wireless unit elsewhere on the uniform to make the emergency worker trackable ,under conditions and in areas including underground here GPS may fail.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems has a shoe in the works that includes a microcontroller, radio frequency module, accelerometer, GPS sensor, and a battery to transmit information of a runner's form and technique to a smartphone app. The app would offer suggestions for changes to things like foot placement, running surface and speed in real-time, and it would send the data to a website for detailed analysis.

Directions and fitness tracking are not only applied for vibrating actuators in shoes. Researchers found out that subtle vibrations on the soles of the feet can improve balance by increasing foot sensation, which declines with age or certain medical conditions. In fact, studies have shown that vibration on the soles of the feet,improves everyone's balance, not only for the old. But the elderly are likely to fall because of balance issues and to suffer serious medical consequences when it happens.

Researchers fitted piezoelectric actuators that transforms electrical energy into mechanical motion ,in urethane foam insoles,together with a microcontroller and battery elsewhere in the shoe, to send vibrations to the soles of the feet, and they discovered that the gadgets greatly reduced the elderly's chances of tripping.

Researchers from the University of Sydney,Australia went as far as experimenting on the concept of employing haptic shoes to send stock information to users. We may not be willing to figure out something as complex as Morse code while strolling along the street, but there are numerous means for signaling us to, or even conveying, time dependent information besides directions through haptic feedback while we are on the move,may be via our phones, watches or shoes.
   


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