May 6, 2004 at 3:59 pm #1482
thought you’d guys get a kick out of this article if you haven’t seen it yet.
The Bionic Running Shoe
Julie Kay Keefe for The New York Times
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
Published: May 6, 2004
SHOES have long been sensible. Now some are getting smart.
Smart enough, that is, to sense their environment electronically, calculate how best to perform in it, and then instantly alter their physical properties to adapt to that environment. In short, the designers say, shoes that can do whatever is needed to deliver improved athletic performance or just a better experience in the ancient poetry of feet striking the earth.
“The whole concept of an intelligent shoe would be great,” said Christian DiBenedetto, a scientist here at the North American headquarters of Adidas. “Something that would change to your different needs during a marathon, or whatever you were doing, was always the fantasy.”
Adidas, the 83-year-old German sporting-goods maker, is about to turn that fantasy into biomechanical reality in the form of a running shoe for men and women. Sleek and lightweight despite its battery-powered sensor, microprocessor and electric motor, the shoe, named 1, is expected to be in stores by December and will cost $250.
Adidas executives say the shoe is no gadget-dependent gimmick. Instead, its designers say it represents a leap forward in wearable technology. Each second, a sensor in the heel can take up to 20,000 readings and the embedded electronic brain can make 10,000 calculations, directing a tiny electric motor to change the shoe. The goal is to make the shoe adjust to changing conditions and the runner’s particular style while in use.
“What we have, basically, is the first footwear product that can change its characteristics in real time,” said Mr. DiBenedetto, who led the group that created the shoe, of its ability to adapt its cushioning as the wearer runs.
The shoes will have push-button controls, light-emitting diodes to display settings and an instruction manual on a CD-ROM that will advise wearers on, among other things, how to change the battery after every 100 hours of use.
Of all items of clothing, said Rob Enderle, a principal analyst for the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., the shoe is a logical one to be a focus of wearable technology. Unlike articles of clothing that must be washed or cleaned, shoes present a more stable place to add useful electronics, he said.
High-performance shoes, particularly those intended for athletic use, he said, have been augmented with an array of biomechanical enhancements, most of them involving compressed gases, shock absorbers and springs. But until now, he said, “I don’t recall electronics being applied in shoes other than for lights.”
From the start of development in early 2001, the shoe was viewed as an opportunity for Adidas to innovate, said Steve Vincent, who leads the company’s worldwide innovation team of about 50 people. Mr. DiBenedetto’s group is one of seven in Germany, Italy and the United States that work in such secrecy that the units’ names are not mentioned to outsiders. To do otherwise, Mr. Vincent said from his corner office overlooking the Willamette River, “would just give away the farm.”
In the hypercompetitive sporting-goods industry, of which the $15 billion sneaker market is only a part, innovation is seen more and more as a great differentiator. And while other companies, like Nike in nearby Beaverton, Ore., have made a name for themselves with new products, Mr. Vincent acknowledged that Adidas had not established a firm reputation as an innovator in the American market.
“We look at innovation as the fuel for our company,” he said. “We are committed to deliver at least one new impactful technology or innovation every year.”
Among the first of those products was ClimaCool, a line of athletic shoes and garments introduced in 2002 that use sophisticated materials and strategically placed venting to relieve the wearer’s heat and perspiration. Others include a soccer ball that is bonded rather than hand-sewn for better durability and truer flight, and a shoe engineered to kick it faster and farther, as well as a swimsuit that uses computer-assisted design and wind-tunnel testing to take advantage of fluid dynamics.
The latest creation, and the first to incorporate digital technology, is the 1 running shoe. Outside the shoe’s development group, which seldom grew beyond seven designers, engineers, researchers and testers, few people ever saw the shoes as they took shape.
“We used to keep them taped up,” said Mark A. Oleson, a 29-year-old electromechanical engineer, who with Mr. DiBenedetto, 38, formed the core of the group.
And because Mr. Oleson has a size-9 foot, the size of most shoe prototypes, he also became its chief tester, running the hallways of the innovation team’s bright, airy building and the lush green neighborhoods that surround it.
But the challenge was melding a shoe with technology in a new way.
The first thing Mr. DiBenedetto and his group had to learn was whether there was an ideal range of cushioning for runners. Cushioning is the shoe’s means of smoothly decelerating the runner’s foot when the heel strikes the ground. If the compression is too hard, the foot slows too quickly and the shock is felt in the runner’s knees, said Mr. DiBenedetto, whose background is in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. If the cushioning is too soft, the foot “bottoms out,” he said, striking the ground too hard, also stressing the knees.
Mr. DiBenedetto said he was surprised to learn that no one had ever precisely measured cushioning compression while a shoe was in use. To do that, he and Mr. Oleson inserted a sensor about the size of a sparrow’s eye into the top of the heel of a standard Adidas running shoe, and a magnet smaller than a dime in the bottom of the heel, creating a magnetic field that the sensor could measure. As the heel was compressed, the sensor, known as a Hall sensor, measured the corresponding changes in the magnetic field strength to a tenth of a millimeter, 1,000 times a second.
To retrieve the data, the group also had to design and build a data logger to gather and store the information and then transfer it to a computer for analysis. After much trial and error, the group had a sensor and data logger small and powerful enough to be snapped onto the tongue of a sneaker.
During their first months of research, Mr. DiBenedetto and Mr. Oleson said they taught themselves to make their own circuit boards and solder components onto them. Mr. DiBenedetto, a former toy maker and designer of air intake and exhaust systems on highly classified aircraft projects for Lockheed, said the group began buying and dissecting motorized toys.
The Hasbro electronic toy creature known as Furby helped them better understand the kinds of tiny electric motors and switches they might need for the shoe. A skinned Furby sat on the edge of a table in Mr. DiBenedetto’s work space.
Once the group had a reliable “sensor shoe,” it set a number of them at various cushioning levels and invited testers to select the pair of shoes they found most comfortable. Then they ran in them.
“They’d come back and we’d download the data, and what we started to see was that everyone was picking a shoe that got them to the same range of compression,” Mr. DiBenedetto recalled.
That led his group to write mathematical language that enabled the shoe’s embedded 20-megahertz computer continually to ensure that the cushioning was ideal for the runner and the situation.
Next the group faced the issue of how to make a shoe adapt while it is being worn. The solution was a hollow engineered plastic cushion with metal support brackets. When the shoe’s motor adjusted the tension on a stainless steel cord that ran through the flexible heel, the heel responded just the way Mr. DiBenedetto and Mr. Oleson wanted.
Mr. Enderle, the analyst, predicted that even at $250 a pair, shoes that use digital technology effectively are likely to find a market. Fortunately for Adidas, he said, “a lot of people who run – business executives and the rest – do have the money and love having the latest cutting-edge shoe that apply technology to make the running experience better.”
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