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Walk This Way

Nothing new about Bluetooth. Nothing new about haptic feedback. And certainly nothing new about shoes. But they’ve all come together in an innovative way in the LeChal interactive footwear. CEO and co-founder of Ducere Technologies, Krispian Lawrence, speaks to Mala Bhargava about the shoes that started out as a way of helping the visually impaired.

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Nothing new about Bluetooth. Nothing new about haptic feedback. And certainly nothing new about shoes. But they’ve all come together in an innovative way in the LeChal interactive footwear. CEO and co-founder of Ducere Technologies, Krispian Lawrence, speaks to Mala Bhargava about the shoes that started out as a way of helping the visually impaired.

It seems easy enough: put some vibration and Bluetooth into a shoe and let a phone connect to it. Why is it that no one’s done this before?
The idea was born out of a need. My friend Anirudh Sharma and I were in Bangalore and we noticed people with visual impairment having a lot of trouble navigating. That’s when the idea of making shoes that help with navigation came about. 

Many solutions that help the visually challenged are audio-dependent but we realised that because this sense is more sensitive for them, it shouldn’t be blocked off for navigation. We decided to use touch, which is one of the most under-used senses in technology.



Why do you believe everyone needs navigational shoes?

When we began testing the shoes on ourselves, we thought, wait a minute, we want to use these too. They were so intuitive. For example, if I want to go somewhere on foot in another city, or go for a hike, or cycle somewhere, looking at a screen is not the way to do it. Instead, my shoes tell me where to go, without throwing audio at me. A vibration on the right shoe will tell me to turn right, one on the left shoe tells me to turn left. And 500 metres before I have to turn, the vibration gets into a certain pattern, while closer, it goes into another pattern. So distance and direction is communicated by touch.

And what is the phone doing all that time?
So, there’s our app, which uses maps — the API from Google and with which you set your destination. You don’t have to keep taking out your phone all the time. You can voice command via the app to set your destination.

We tied up with the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, and tested the technology extensively, but when we found out that it was usable by anyone, we knew that our product design was going to be inclusive and not discriminate on the basis of the user.

For the visually impaired, who might have trouble with the touchscreen phone, we decided to use the volume button to trigger features.
 
Are you working with other wearables?
We actually got into wearables in 2010 — long before people were even using the word. Even before we started our company, Ducere, we were already working on ideas. To think that the most advanced computer 20 years ago is less powerful than your smartphone today should make you imagine what it’s going to be like 20 years into the future.

We think that for technology to work it has to become a natural extension of the human body.

Why did you design the shoes to be red?
We strongly believe that it’s about the future of fashion. You can’t just look at it from the technology lens. It’s been challenging to build technology into shoes, but it’s always been about becoming a natural extension of yourself.

We also have another product — the insoles. These can be fitted into other shoes to make them work the same way. And this is the future of footwear. Just as you take it for granted that you will have apps on your phone, you can believe that you will have smart footwear in the future.

We decided that we will always make products that we want to own. So it must look good. At the same time, affordability should not be a barrier. So, our products are priced between $150 and $200 while for the visually impaired, we have other pricing structures and subsidised rates as part of our “LeChal initiative.”

What about obstacles as you walk? Particularly for those who can’t see too well, how do you build that in?

We do have another product in the making which will detect obstacles and vibrate. As you walk closer, the strength of the vibration will increase. This is in our product roadmap for the coming year.

And what about indoor navigation? These days, we have more walking to do inside buildings than outside.
We are working on indoor navigation. We have a product in development with which when a person walks into a new place, the phone will make a map of the area. For example, we’re doing this for one of the biggest airports in the world. As you walk in, there will be an indoor map to navigate you around. Our attempt is to make the same technology for everyone, whether differently abled or not. No one should have to feel different.
 
Are there going to be other features built into the LeChal shoes?

By May, we will ship out the pre-orders. After that, the shoes will be available through many distribution channels. The first model takes you where you want to go and orients you in the right direction.

We will soon release an SDK which will allow others to build many apps for this. We are also introducing a fall detection feature, so that if a person is in trouble, an SOS feature will alert someone. There are also fitness features possible to count steps and other workout parameters such as the pace of a workout.

Will distribution be a challenge?
This is a first of its kind product and we’re seeing a lot of interest from retailers. We will make these shoes and insoles available readily. We have two formats, the B2C channel which will be through retail and the B2B which will tap channels to make the shoes available to people with eyesight issues. Even the elderly could benefit from these. 

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-05-2015)


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