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Get Smart Shoes

Agent 86, eat your heart out. These smart shoes may not make phone calls, but they’ll analyze your gait like none other.
June 20, 2011

Perhaps you thought that the shoe, that ancient yet humble piece of technology, had reached its ultimate form long ago. Well, you thought wrong. A company called XSens has just introduced to the world sensor-packed shoes with a variety of applications. Not since Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone has the world seen such high-tech innovation in footwear.

XSens calls its ForceShoe “an ambulatory gait lab.” Each shoe in a ForceShoe pair contains an array of sensors beneath the heel and sole to measure forces, together with proprietary inertial and magnetic trackers. A transmitter (dubbed the “XBus Master”) can push data in real-time to a computer, which in turn can run XSens’s own software for access to raw data on the fly. Gait analysis like this has traditionally been possible in the lab; the ForceShoe brings it into the field. Even so, the fancy footwear isn’t ready for mass deployment yet–XSens says it’s for “research use only.”

That’s fitting, perhaps, given the ForceShoe’s academic origins. XSens, which has offers a wide range of 3D tracking technology, has licensed the tech behind the ForceShoe from Professor P.H. Veltink of the University of Twente (a real person, and a real place!). XSens is, in fact, a University of Twente spin-off company.

What are the immediate uses for such a technology? Though Engadget cutely suggests that this might be the ultimate Nike+ accessory, the University of Twente says that the ForceShoe “has primarily been developed to help the rehabilitation of stroke patients who are coping with paralysis on one side of the body.” Stroke patients who lose mobility on one side of the body need to learn to walk again, and successful therapy requires precise information about how the patient is walking in a given moment. The ForceShoe, as an ambulatory lab, now makes advanced therapy possible in any rehab center or nursing home–not just in state-of-the-art hospitals. The University says that there are plans to make the ForceShoe available for everyday use in the patient’s home.

Looking even further ahead, there are other applications, too. “Ergonomics is an interesting area, for example,” Veltink told his university. “You can use the shoe to form an objective impression of the physical burden placed on people in their work situation. This is something that insurance companies are very interested in.” And professional or even Olympic-level athletes might find precise data on their stride to be worth the investment in a pair of ForceShoes, though that would require considerable miniaturization of the technology.

No plans yet to integrate telephony into the shoes. But then, that always seemed a bit conspicuous, didn’t it?

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