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Keep on running with wearable technology

Submission by: Cameron Kippen Podologist and Shoe Historian Curtin University of Technology Perth Western Australia.

Of all items of clothing, the shoe presents a logical choice for wearable technology.

According to experts, unlike articles of clothing that must be washed or cleaned, shoes present a more stable place to add useful electronics. The inclusion of micro technology into footwear has to date had limited success. There has been some exploration with microchips in military footwear for the purpose of global positioning identification and sports shoes has until now had novelty lights and timepieces fitted.

Of all items of clothing, the shoe presents a logical focus of wearable technology. According to experts unlike articles of clothing that must be washed or cleaned, shoes present a more stable place to add useful electronics. Adidas has released a prototype sports shoe with microchip technology, which continuously reconfigures its sole to provide a constant level of support whilst its wearer is running.

The heel contains a sensor and magnet to gauge the cushioning needed and relay the data to a microprocessor and a drive train running from the motor makes adjustments. Every second, the sensor in the heel takes up to 20,000 readings and the embedded electronic brain makes 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. As each contact phase is made the sole of the shoe is compressed, the new Adidas shoe, called "1", uses its impact sensor, microprocessor and motorized cushioning system to reconfigure the level of shock-absorption provided by the shoe every four steps. The computer is housed in the arch of the running shoe holds a microprocessor built around a motor unit, along with a battery (must be replaced after 100 hours.). Impulses from the control centre compresses or decompresses the sole every four paces, to maintain the same level of support. The athlete can fine tune cushioning by using the shoe's "user interface" which consists of two buttons that adjust for the runner's preference for softer or harder cushioning. Five light-emitting diodes display the setting.

Whilst there are no plans to trial the shoes at this year's Olympics, with Nike working on a similar wearable technology it is certainly something to look forward to in the near future. According to Scanlon (2004) the heel sensor measures the compression in the heel with each step. From that data, the 20-MHz processor extrapolates information about the stride and the running surface, and then signals a motor that drives small gears to adjust the cushioning element, a 2-inch tube of Dupont-engineered plastic. The motor bends and pressures the plastic to conform to the set of determined cushioning level. The shoe runs on a 20 MHz processor and makes 10,000 calculations a second. Two buttons on the side of the shoe let runners indicate their preferred amount of squish. The watch-type battery will last 100 hours, or up to 600 miles - roughly the life of the 14.1-ounce sneaker.

Rivals Nike and Philips have also come up with a Christmas cracker in the form of a new music player called the MP3Run. It is the first device to combine a portable digital music player with a performance monitor designed for runners. While listening to music during a run, users can get real-time audible feedback via their headphones. Information includes their distance, pace and elapsed time. Too much information, I don't think so. Well not according to the manufacturers because this, they say, is what your athlete wants. The MP3Run comes with 256 MB of storage (enough for four hours of MP3 music or eight hours in the WMA format), FM radio, an added safety feature is the built in strobe light for low- light conditions when running at night. The MP3Run has room to store up to 200 workouts that can be uploaded to a PC so users can chart their progress. Athletes can also transfer their workout data to Nike's Web site for runners, where they can compare their performance with friends or share it with a trainer.

The device is fitted with Vaporflight sport headphones an armband, a USB cable and a recharger (the MP3Run has 12 hours of music playback time). I want one already, but there's more…? The sporty-looking white, red and silver device retails at approx. $299.99 (US), which is rather pricey but the hope is clones will bring this down.

The MP3Run consists of two pieces: a hockey puck-shaped music player that straps comfortably to the biceps, and a wireless speed and distance sensor that attaches securely to the shoe. The shoe sensor continuously collects data such as speed and distance covered then via Bluetooth technology displays a performance summary on the MR3Run window along with an audible report via the headphones. Users can also access data at any time with the press of a button, or the device can be set to automatically announce that information at regular intervals (such as every kilometre or every five minutes).

The companies claim the sensor can track speed and distance with up to 99. 6 percent accuracy. The MP3Run also offers the option of manual calibration, allowing users to adjust the offset value if the device is still not accurate enough. Before you decide to fill your stocking this Christmas with the MP3Run there are some problems. The radio cannot operate while the speed and distance monitor is on. Reviewers have also found the automatic power-off feature is inconvenient and leaves a blank display more often than not. So it might be worth waiting for the next generation. Both are coming to a store near you at Christmas time but with price tags, twice the cost of good quality runners, they are unlikely to find their way into my stockings.


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