The rise and fall of the smart shoe – and why they could be on the way back

Kieran Alger asks why we're not lacing up more intelligent footwear
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The other day I was clearing out my old running gear when, at the back of my shoe-drobe (that's a thing if you're a runner), I came across an old battered pair of Nike trainers. But these weren't just any old trainers, they were the Nike+ training shoes from way back in 2012.

What was special about these shoes was that they were smart. They had a set of three pressure sensors built into the shoes that could detect things like ground contact and foot speed, the kind of stats you need to turn loads of previously unquantified fitness activities into cold hard data.

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At the launch of the shoes Nike wheeled out boxing legend Manny Pacquiao to prove the point. We got a demo of Manny's lightning fast feet skipping rope all the while the Nike+ training system logged every skip with impressive accuracy. This is the future, I remember thinking "this is how to bring fitness to life."

The rise and fall of the smart shoe – and why they could be on the way back

Fast forward to 2015 and the crumpled Nikes I'm about to throw out suggest that future isn't quite here yet. In fact, while we've seen a million Kickstarter campaigns for everything from jewellery, clothes, yoga mats and even heart rate monitoring headbands, we're yet to see our shoes get smart.

What makes it more interesting is that Nike weren't the only ones putting chips in shoes. Adidas MiCoach had a shoe pod that helped power the tracking on the MiCoach running app, as did Garmin and Polar. Our football boots looked like they were going to get smart too, with more Adidas MiCoach chips clocking all kinds of stats from acceleration of your sprints to the power of your last strike on goal.

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Nike themselves had been working on an even more advanced version of the Nike+ Training system. On a trip to the Nike Innovation Labs at the Oregon headquarters, we were treated to unprecedented access to some of the things the company's development team was working on. One of the things I recall being wowed by was something that looked like a flexible circuit board of sensors that would fit into the sole of your shoe. Whereas the original Nike+ Training system relied on you putting in pod-like sensors, this would be built into the shoe, or the sole of a shoe.

Here's another fact that might interest you. According to Statista, the global sports footwear market is projected to hit $87 billion by 2020. That's a lot of shoes and football boots. In a world where even our bras have been connected, the big question I have is when the footwear market presents a huge opportunity, why are our shoes being neglected?

The rise and fall of the smart shoe – and why they could be on the way back

Well, perhaps they're not. Chinese firm Lenovo recently demonstrated a new smart shoes concept, a pair of trainers with a built-in display that can be customised to display the wearer's mood, along with other real time fitness data such as heart rate, calorie burn and pace.

Then there's GPS Smartsole, a company putting a slightly different spin on what should be done with chips in shoes. They've launched a pair of shoes with GPS tracking built into the sole. The soles can broadcast the wearer's location without the need for another device, brilliant for keeping tabs on vulnerable family members like younger children or sufferers of Alzheimers.

Lechal is a another company putting its art and sole into clever kicks. In addition to the usual steps, distance and calories, it's haptic footwear and smart insoles work with an app on your smartphone to help you navigate your city. A series of vibrations in the pod, placed at the most sensitive part of your foot, tell you when to turn left or turn right. They'll also vibrate to alert you if you've left your smartphone behind.

The rise and fall of the smart shoe – and why they could be on the way back

One clever set of engineers in Germany are also asking whether we might be able to harness the energy from our own movement. They're trialling tech that consists of a shock harvester that generates power from the impact of your foot striking the ground and a swing harvester that converts energy while your feet are in the air. The idea is that it can sit in the heel of the shoe turning your every step into power for your smartphone.

Interesting as these ideas are, it feels like there's more novelty value than genuine practicality. The Smartsole make some sense and the Lechal have potential but we're a long way from products the majority of us could see becoming part of our everyday. And that has to be a key consideration.

According to Simon Drabble, director of BU Interactive at Adidas, who works on the miCoach platform and wearables like the Adidas SmartRun, there are still a few technological and social hurdles, to well, hurdle before we get the kind of products we'll make a habit of wearing.

"The key to the adoption of any new technology is to make it non-intrusive and to deliver a meaningful benefit to the consumer. As technology is advancing there are new ways to implement it into footwear and apparel that did not exist in the past and if the products can meet the needs of a consumer and solve a specific need then there will be a good chance of adoption."

But we're not there yet.

The rise and fall of the smart shoe – and why they could be on the way back

"There are a number of key challenges with sensors in shoes but as technology advances these challenges become possible to solve," argues Drabble. "The first challenge would be to identify a unique selling point.

"When we created the miCoach Speed_cell we allowed people to take data from the court and field of play which had never been possible before and the product gave people a new window into their sport."

Then there's battery power. Not just any power but ecologically sustainable power. "Any solution for power management needs to minimise the impact on the design, style and weight of any product. Specifically it ideally also needs to removable, changeable or chargeable."

"The third key challenge is sensor size and durability. Shoes can take a lot of impact and they also allow dirt and water into the area where sensors may be placed so this needs significant consideration."

On top of all of this, once you have the technical and design solutions you need to make sure your production process is viable and according to Drabble. "Combining the worlds of apparel and footwear production with high technology brings its own hurdles to surpass and these need to be factored into design from the beginning."

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Kieran Alger


Kieran is a world record-setting runner and one of the UK's most experienced running journalists.

A constant tester of the latest fitness technology, he's always hunting for innovations that can make him run faster, further and generally be in better shape.

Kieran is often found wearing four GPS running watches at once. And to date he's tracked more than 50 marathons, 13 ultras and countless half marathons - including the Marathon Des Sables.

In 2022, he became the first person to run the river Danube from sea to source, a measly 1,830 miles in 66 days. And still had time to test running gear.

Kieran regularly takes running tech to the extremes for Wareable and the likes of Runner's World, Mens Health and Wired.

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