Internet of Feet: a technological step too far?

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By now, most people have heard of the Internet of Things. But heading into 2016, are we ready for the Internet of Feet?

We seldom think of our lower extremities, except when we’ve been on them for too long or when we need new shoes. But they’re an untapped gold mine of new possibilities, according to a growing number of companies, scientists and technologists.

If they have their way, feet won’t be just for walking much longer. At best, this means we’ll soon have more things to plug in and recharge. At worst, criminals and governments will be hacking into our footwear, for whatever dubious gains that may bring them.

India’s Ducere Technologies, for one, is selling shoes that contain sensors and feedback modules that connect to Google Maps on the wearer’s smartphone. Intended for the visually impaired, the shoes guide wearers along their set route with gentle vibrations that nudge them into turning left or right when they need to.

The first wave of the company’s “Lechal”branded shoes, which sell for up to US$150, sold out. Ducere is now preparing to ship a second wave by February.

Los Angeles-based GTX has a similar idea with its $299 GPS SmartSole. The company is marketing the GPS-embedded insoles to individuals who tend to become disoriented or lost, which includes people with Alzheimer’s, dementia or autism.

With cellphone network-enabled monitoring plans that range between $25 and $49 a month, loved ones can track users wherever they may go.

France’s Glagla, meanwhile, is aiming at a different, likely colder market with Digitsole, a heated shoe insert that can be controlled via smartphone.

The $199 Bluetooth-connected insoles are like Nest thermostats for your feet - you can set their temperatures and even vary them from foot to foot, in case you like one warmer than the other. They also double as FitBits with built-in accelerometers that track steps.

Redmond, Washington-based Sensoria is going … er … a step further with “smart socks” that use pressure sensors woven into the textile to monitor gait and foot-landing techniques.

Aimed at runners, the $399 socks work with a Bluetooth-connected anklet that delivers information up to a smartphone, where the wearer can see visual heat maps of how they’re using their feet. Such data can help to prevent common injuries such as plantar fasciitis, the company says.

Such efforts aren’t the exclusive domain of startups. Nike and Adidas, for example, have been making tracking pods that fit into shoes for years. But they’re raising their game, with at least Nike reportedly working on flexible-yet-durable circuit boards that would serve as insoles themselves.

The company hasn’t formally announced any such products yet, but fully digital shoes are certainly on the horizon.

A group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, meanwhile, believe foot technology has applications outside of tracking functions.

The group have created KickSoul, another set of Bluetooth-connected insoles, although these can help control other devices.

KickSoul can be programmed so that simple foot movements set other actions in motion. A kick forward, for example, can turn on your living room lights, or a shuffle backward can zoom in on your computer monitor. Such capabilities can come in handy when your hands are otherwise occupied, the researchers say.

Similarly, Pittsburgh-based SolePower is taking pre-orders for EnSole, yet another shoe insert. This one builds up energy while you walk.

The power generated by footfalls is stored in a battery that attaches to your laces, which then connects to any device via USB. The goal is to be able to fully charge an iPhone with about four kilometres of walking. SolePower expects to sell its gizmo next year for $199.

Not to be outdone, New York-based ShiftWear believes it can turn shoes into canvasses on which users can express themselves. The startup’s shoes use the same kind of e-ink displays found in e-book readers to display images, which can range from abstract shapes and still photos to moving animations.

The company handily blew through its $200,000 goal on crowd-funding site Indiegogo and will be focusing on delivering its ambitious - and creative - project in 2016.

Heading into the new year, it’s clear that the Internet of Things isn’t just about home thermostats or even connected cars. It will soon have us covered head to toe, literally.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.