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Shoe wearables – stepping into a new era for healthcare

Connected shoe technology is a growing field with a broad range of applications, and it is set to make a significant contribution to the world of health and wellbeing over the next few years. How does this revolutionary technology work, what can it be used for and what does the future look like?

Although the popularity of devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers have seen the term become a twenty-first-century buzz phrase, wearable technology has actually been around for quite a while. For example, innovations such as wristwatches and hearing aids were invented well over a century ago and heart rate monitors have been available since the early 1980s.

When it comes to devices that monitor aspects of an individual’s movement and physical condition, there is now a range of commercially available products that can help consumers improve their health and fitness or their physical performance. They do this by analysing sleep patterns, counting steps and monitoring heart rate, alongside countless other useful metrics.

Having entered the conversation in recent times, connected shoe technology is presently the subject of significant research and development, and it has the potential to make a hefty contribution to a myriad of health monitoring applications. Shoe wearables offer a large – and growing – number of benefits in several areas, especially sports, fitness and healthcare. Thrive is currently advancing the technology in these spaces to create solutions alongside companies with a motivation to bring these benefits to the world.

How the technology works

Invented by Edward Thorpe and Claude Shannon in 1961, the intriguing first example of wearable technology for footwear was a timing device small enough to fit in a shoe that could apparently improve the chances of winning at a roulette table by as much as 44%. Modern-day shoe wearables tend to be focussed more on wellbeing and physical performance though, using sensors embedded within footwear to identify many useful metrics associated with the wearer, including fluctuations in weight distribution and the wearer’s actual weight. These measurements can be particularly useful in healthcare and athletic performance, although other potential uses include military applications and scientific research.

Unsurprisingly, where funding goes, the tech will follow; this means that in terms of shoe wearables, sport tends to act as a gateway for the development of the technology, which can then be adapted for other beneficial uses. In sporting terms, alongside form factors that may immediately spring to mind such as running shoes and football boots, the technology can also be found in ski boots and other sporting footwear. Having said this, we are also seeing plenty of innovation in shoe wearables for healthcare.

Healthcare benefits of connected shoe technology

As well as measuring phenomena that can contribute to the ongoing assessment of a patient’s health and fitness levels, data collected from sensors around the foot can help predict the onset of certain health issues, which can be useful in treating individuals suffering from neurodegenerative and neurological conditions, or those undergoing rehabilitation following a stroke. Input from gait sensors in shoes can also be combined with other data, such as heart rate taken from wearables on other parts of the body, to improve health and fitness.

An important advantage of shoe wearables is that the foot can provide plenty of useful data about the wearer. These include gait, core body and extremity temperature, blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) and blood flow through the toes. There are also acceleration, gyroscopic and orientation sensors, which can be used for a very wide range of movement dynamics and other derived quantities, such as activity levels and even important markers relating to a variety of conditions. Because the shoe is a tight-fitting garment that is constantly in proximity to the body, sensors connected to the foot will also benefit from reliable close contact and can therefore be designed to provide high-quality signals. When monitored over time, gait, positioning and movement data can be useful in identifying variations or progression in health conditions like type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. It can additionally be used in combination with data from pressure sensors to detect painful foot swelling, which is common with type 2 diabetes.

Given that wearable technology is now an established concept that modern consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with and that the shoe is already a familiar form factor with a shape that doesn’t require any alteration to incorporate sensors, wearable tech in footwear has the advantage that it is more likely to be engaged with by the general public. When compared with less conventional forms such as implantable devices or Google Glass, this accessibility offers hope that the tech will someday bring health benefits to a broad range of users.

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Shoe wearable R&D – benefits and barriers

As mentioned, a lot of the research and development work being done in the area of shoe wearables comes from the ever-increasing demand for sportspeople to continue improving their performance. The sports sector drives much of the innovation in this field for two primary reasons – there is plenty of funding available, and even marginal enhancements to athletic performance can dramatically improve results in competitive sports. Fortunately, a lot of the technological innovations that arise from this work – as well as the resulting insights into health and fitness – can be beneficial in other areas too, particularly healthcare.

There are, of course, significant challenges involved in developing new shoe wearables, and getting the products to market can be a complex process that involves the integration of a number of supply chains. Electronic components are often made from hard physical materials – when attached to very flexible materials and subjected to the forces associated with walking, this can result in some significant engineering and production challenges. Despite all of this, the technology offers viable options for producers with the right circumstances and mindset.

What does the future hold?

One issue that presents both challenges and intriguing opportunities is that of battery charging – resolving this is essential in order for shoe wearables to fulfil their potential. Contactless charging technology that already exists may someday be integrated into floors in order to keep a range of battery-powered household products charged; if this comes to be, the technology could remove the issue of needing to actively remember to charge the shoes, as they would simply be charged as the user walks around their home, or when left on a mat at the door. Another tantalising prospect is shoes with kinetic charging like that seen in some watches and flashlights, capturing energy from foot movements throughout the day to keep the shoe’s battery charged.

Connected shoe technology is an evolving market – alongside the clear applications that already exist in healthcare, the rapid emergence of the tech presents a host of exciting new possibilities. Thrive is actively analysing opportunities and developing applications of the technology in order to create viable solutions for forward-thinking partners in the field. For instance, a major benefit of wearable tech in footwear is that shoes can be worn all day, meaning that constant measurements can be taken during normal activity to build up a complete picture of the health markers being recorded. The ability to analyse data over a longer period is set to make major contributions in terms of long-term health management, not just for the individual being studied but for all sufferers of a condition.

Shoe wearables have demonstrated a number of benefits already, with more emerging as the healthcare industry continues to embrace the many possibilities offered by the technology. Thrive is operating across multiple dimensions in this space, and we’re excited to work alongside other proactive players to exploit opportunities and make this beneficial technology available. As we continue taking bold steps into a fascinating future for connected shoe technology, the big question is: who will be first to market across the various niches opening up for shoe based wearable technology products?

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