Smart Footwear Unveils a Connected Future

The shoes of tomorrow are here—and the industry isn’t missing a beat, providing consumers high-tech, smart footwear that could positively impact health and physical activity.

Over the past few years, smart footwear has gradually made its mark on the global market. As consumers continue to learn more about wearables, major players, including Under Armour, Salted Venture, Ducere Technologies and Anatomic & Co., have debuted their own versions of smart footwear that improve performance and wellbeing. Nike also took a stab at the future when it launched HyperAdapt 1.0, an advanced mechanical lacing shoe, last year.

Although smart shoes aren’t a new concept, the interest in intelligent products isn’t slowing down anytime soon. According to research group CCS Insight, 96 million smart wearable devices, including smart shoes, are projected to ship worldwide in 2017. What’s more, 185 million devices are expected to ship globally in 2021, while performance-enhancing lifestyle devices will remain the top wearables product category over the next four years.

“I think there are many brands that are working on [smart footwear] from many different angles. We are making major advances here, and we will see some amazing product in the very near future,” said Matt Powell, sports analyst at The NPD Group.

Currently, smart footwear is still in its early stages and primarily geared towards a niche consumer demographic, including athletes and health-conscious consumers. Some of these models, including Under Armour’s UA SpeedForm Gemini 3 RE and Salted Venture’s IOFIT smart golf shoe, enable consumers to improve their fitness performance.

“Most innovations currently are coming from the sports, fitness and wellness side, with the goal being to provide anyone from a casual runner to a professional athlete with more information about their performance,” ABI Research Analyst Stephanie Lawrence said. “This information not only provides them with a way in which to determine how to improve, but also shows them where they may be causing injury and how to avoid it.”

Providing innovative technology is half the battle. Experts said in order to be successful in the smart footwear category, brands must focus on creating a comfortable shoe and appeal to a broader shopper demographic. If those two qualities are met, consumers are more likely to engage with smart footwear.

“These devices are intended to be worn for a long period of time, so comfort is essential to ensure the device’s survival,” Lawrence said. “The technology needs to withstand issues associated with sheer force, sweat and humidity, all of which are associated with the shoe form factor, while not interfering with the wearer.”

Powell points out that people who run for fitness are very particular about the shoes they use. “The products need to be relatively integrated into multiple styles. To tell a consumer, ‘We can tell you a lot about your run, but you have to wear this particular shoe,’ probably is not going to fly because I think the first thing that a runner thinks about is if the shoe is comfortable, am I free of injury, am I able to run easily in them. The shoe itself really becomes the first and most important investment and then the technology really needs to be easily integrated into multiple shoes,” he explained.

A smart shoe may have all the right cushioning and wearable properties, but other tracking devices, including wristbands, could fulfill the same purpose. Brands need to think freely and go beyond the performance tracking devices available in the market.

“While this new generation of smart shoes offer superior user experience at reasonable prices, we believe that smart shoes and smart clothing in general are still far from gaining wider appeal beyond sports and technology enthusiasts,” said George Jijiashvili, CCS Insight wearables analyst. “Smart shoe makers have acknowledged this and are now working on delivering features that are difficult or impossible to replicate on wrist-based wearables.”

Many major companies have ramped up their smart footwear initiatives to stay ahead of the game. These brands elevate the smart footwear concept by appealing to a wide variety of consumers, while delivering products that are comfortable and more advanced than other wearable devices.

After launching its first smart shoe, the UA SpeedForm Gemini 2 RE last year, Under Armour is on a roll in this category. In December, the company debuted a second connected footwear line. The three smart shoes, UA SpeedForm Gemini 3 RE, the UA SpeedForm Europa RE and the UA SpeedForm Velociti RE, are powered by Under Armour’s mobile app and global digital running community, MapMyRun.

Similar to the UA SpeedForm Gemini 2 RE, the new models contain UA Record Equipped, a smart footwear feature that heightens MapMyRun’s tracking abilities. UA Record Equipped provides detailed exercise statistics, including cadence and shoe mileage lifetime, without the need for recharging.

Under Armour elevated the models with Jump Test, a performance feature that scientifically evaluates muscle fatigue levels. When connected to MapMyRun, Jump Test enables wearers to measure their recovery status and provides guidance on how to switch up workout intensity. In addition to these technology features, each shoe also provides wearers with optimal comfort and protection. Fabrications include knit midfoot panel support, UA SpeedForm construction for an accurate fit and Charged Cushioning for improved wearable responsiveness.

Under Armour aims to expand its smart footwear line to other markets, including those in Australia, China, Europe, Japan, the Middle East and North America next year. “Through our connected footwear line, we are taking a core piece of our business and adding value to a growing audience among our customers—runners,” said Jasmine Maietta, senior director of brand marketing at Under Armour. “We are creating a frictionless experience for runners to focus on their training, while having access to the information that matters most to them, all through a comprehensive ecosystem.”

Salted Venture is also going above and beyond standard tracking to deliver a memorable wearables experience. Formed inside Samsung C-Lab, an innovation program for Samsung employees, the startup launched a smart golf shoe, IOFIT, in 2016.

Unlike other smart shoes, IOFIT enables wearers to tackle one of the most challenging golf moves—the swing. Pressure sensors embedded in the soles measure a player’s weight shift and balance during a golf swing. Data is then transferred to the player’s smartphone, where the IOFIT app provides personalized analysis and feedback on movement. Due to IOFIT’s technology, players can see any changes from pressure distribution to center of pressure (COP) in real-time. Players can also compete with friends in the app and save their customized swing information.

After the successful launch of IOFIT, Salted Venture plans to upgrade the shoe and work with other companies to develop innovative footwear outside of the golf sector. “For IOFIT, we all know that balance is essential in our daily activities. Especially in golf, balance is directly related to the performance of your swing and having the right balance is the key to improving your golf swing and skills,” Salted Venture Marketing Manager Junsik Oh said. “We want every golfer to benefit from this information in a portable and affordable way.”

While other companies continue to roll out performance smart shoes, Anatomic & Co. takes a wellness-oriented approach to wearables. The U.K.-based footwear company developed the In Good Company smart shoe to help consumers digitally detox. “The In Good Company shoe was the world’s most sociable shoe, that didn’t connect you to the internet—it disconnected you,” Anatomic & Co. Co-Founder Moema Pimentel said. “The idea behind it was to help people reconnect with each other by minimizing the biggest distraction in people’s lives today—mobile phones.”

Wearable technology and mindfulness influenced the development of the shoe. Bluetooth at the bottom of the shoe’s heel connects with Anatomic & Co.’s app. On the app, users can block unwanted notifications throughout the day. The app also enables users to choose contacts that won’t be blocked. Once users save their settings, the app silences incoming notifications, calls and messages with a do-not-disturb setting. Users can also set up times where the app will not block incoming phone activity, so they can enjoy activities and handle work-related communications conveniently.

Ducere Technologies is taking wearable technology to another important part of shoes—the soles. Lechal, Ducere Technologies’ smart footwear product, is a sole insert that tracks steps, mileage, calories burned in a day and also features navigational capabilities. The insert contains a Bluetooth device, which synchronizes with Lechal’s app and notifies wearers with real-time information. Using vibrational feedback, users are alerted about proper direction through the insert’s GPS feature.

“The technology of touch is very intuitive since the brain recognizes touch but does not need time to process a response. In effect, this becomes the quickest way to respond and as a result, the mind is left free to process and soak in a wide variety of things around you and that’s the beauty of Lechal,” Ducere Technologies CEO and Founder Krispian Lawrence said. “It lets you work out or travel without having to be worried.”

With the influx of connected shoes and consumer awareness, the future of smart footwear is uncertain. Although many smart shoes contain advanced performance metrics and technology that syncs up with other devices, there is much more work to be done.

“For these devices to really take off, vendors are going to have to explore exactly what information consumers are looking to gain from them and ensure that the devices can collect it accurately,” Lawrence said. “Strong marketing schemes will be required to inform the public about the devices, what they can do and how they are better than a standard activity tracker.”

Tapping into consumer’s wearable desires could be the next step. Regardless if consumers want to reduce muscle tension, perfect a physical move or evaluate mindfulness, brands will have to advance their smart shoes to meet these individualized needs.

“The breakthrough is going to be that the devices become more sophisticated. It would not surprise me that in five years we are all wearing some kind of device that is giving us feedback on what is important for us,” Powell said. “We are not nearly at that level of sophistication yet with what these devices can do, but the potential exists for that to happen.”

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