The smart, connected shoe

What if your shoe could tell you how to improve your golf swing? Or, if you are diabetic, that you were about to hit a fatigue threshold and painfully slam your foot into the ground? That's the promise of Plantiga, a company that has developed smart footwear that tracks and quantifies weight distribution and other biomechanical parameters and sends that data to your smartphone.

"We have essentially built a force plate inside the shoe," Plantiga CEO Quin Sandler told PlasticsToday. "It captures steps, posture, balance, alignment, gait, and other parameters to give us insight into the body. To date, this data has only been possible using expensive labs," he adds. Come summer 2015, if not sooner, you will be able to generate and access this data for a couple hundred dollars.

Plantiga shoeI saw the Plantiga shoe and listened to Sandler extol its virtues at the Wearable Tech LA conference last month. I'm a veteran journalist, so I have a finely tuned sense of cynicism, but I have to say that I was impressed with his presentation. Sandler showed a well-produced video of the technology at the event, a portion of which is included in the embedded video at the end of this article. It might make a believer of you, as well.

Here is how Sandler defines his mission on the Plantiga website:

"We've devoted a lot of time to the act of re-engineering the shoe. We've worked hard to marry the elements of flexibility and stiffness, and at the same keep them separate. We've found the dynamic where they work in a synchronized fashion. By doing this we've found our footwear to be interactive, giving the wearer both comfort and control, with the added function of movement data generation."

The patented Suspnd technology, which achingly wants to buy a vowel, absorbs all shock and impact forces from the sole, sidewalls, and energy return system—essentially shock absorbers—and redistributes them around the shoe perimeter, effectively canceling all impact directly under the foot. The benefits are performance level stability, traction, and control along with a heightened level of comfort. But that's only the start.

In the brave new world of the Internet of things, the Plantiga shoe also produces data related to fatigue, balance, and overall wellness, which can be transmitted to a smartphone app and correlated in any number of ways. That's why diabetics, golfers, and sundry athletes for that matter may want to consider slipping into a pair of Plantigas.

"The healthcare implications are massive" says Sandler, who is quick to point out that these shoes are not medical devices that have run through the FDA approval gauntlet. They fall into that blurry category of health and wellness products. "We are not making suggestions about what you should do based on the data," he clarifies, noting, however, that the data can "offer crazy new insights into rehabilitation therapy by recording milestones and helping physiotherapists understand patient progress or the lack thereof."

He also cites the example of diabetics, who can hit their foot hard on the ground when they get tired. "The shoe can detect when a person's gait characteristics change, indicating fatigue, and a text message could be generated as a result letting that person know, 'Hey, you're tired, you're getting past the threshold where you might slam your foot hard."Plantiga iphone metrics

Meanwhile, on the fairway, foot dynamics and balance are critical to sending the golfball where it needs to go. "Some golfers spend a fortune perfecting their ground reaction force," says Sandler. They could spend a whole lot less to achieve actionable results by investing in the Plantiga shoe, he adds.

On the materials front, Sandler told PlasticsToday that he looked at different polymers for parts of the shoe, but ended up using common materials such as polyurethane and vulcanized rubber. "The energy return system is a polymer-steel hybrid," he adds, which was sourced because of its light weight.

Plantiga is headquartered in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and also has a significant footprint, if you'll pardon the expression, at the Wearable World incubator in San Francisco, CA. To the surprise of no one, there is a "big push in marketing the shoe in California," says Sandler.

The prototypes were made in Canada, where 3D printing played a considerable role. He confesses to being amazed at what can be done with 3D-printed molds, which he was not aware of before embarking on this project—Sandler clearly is not a regular reader of PlasticsToday. He sees that technology and advanced manufacturing in general as an avant garde movement for reshoring industries that have fled North America over the decades.

"We have located a manufacturer in Taiwan that has expertise in footwear and electronics," says Sandler, a clear plus for his product as he scales up production of the shoe. "But, as time goes on, I believe that manufacturing will come back to North America. I am looking at leveraging advanced manufacturing and 3D printing to bring our production back here," he adds.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

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