Wrapping Computers Around Your Feet

Photograph by Getty Images

For people interested in wearable computing but uninterested in funny looking glasses or hypothetical wristwatches, there will soon be a new alternative: computerized socks.

Heapsylon, a small startup based in Redmond, Wash., has developed socks it has dubbed Sensoria, after the part of the brain that coordinates the information coming in from your various sensory centers. They’re part of a growing class of devices lightweight enough to allow users to forget they’re wearing computers.

When it comes to wearable computing, socks present unique advantages. First off, you keep them in your shoes, so it doesn’t matter if they look as silly as Google Glass. And anyone who has donned a Fuelband or Fitbit knows that the steps counted by those devices aren’t quite like the steps your body actually takes. Sure, accelerometers are fine if you need a general sense of how much you’re moving. But if you want to know exactly what’s going on with your feet, it’s probably best to wrap them in sensors.

The device’s most impressive technical achievement comes in response to its Achilles’ heel—the smell. After a year of development, Heapsylon says it has developed a wearable computer you can  throw in the washer and dryer. The company’s founders, two of whom come from Microsoft’s XBox Kinect department, claim that the fabric is soft and not scratchy. We can’t be sure because Heapsylon isn’t yet ready to ship prototypes to reporters on the East Coast.

The socks don’t do everything themselves. Users have to wear a Bluetooth-enabled anklet that listens to the sensors and transmits the data onto computers that actually have screens. But runners who like boring their friends and families with tales of their split times are going to love the level of minutiae that flows from the computerized fabric. Davide Vigano, one of the founders, says that he has been using a prototype of the sock to track his tendency towards over-pronation when he gets fatigued. The device also allows him to monitor his cadence as he runs and lets him track his progress as he tries to reduce his heel-striking.

Heapsylon hopes to begin selling to the general public late next year, charging $150 for the first pair of socks and the anklet, and $60 for three-packs beyond that. By that time, the company hopes to be able to offer much more data, which it will begin collecting when it sends out devices to contributors to a crowdfunding campaign it is launching on Indiegogo this week.

“If I’m 5’11”, 175 pounds [and] I have the same goals as someone else out there, wouldn’t it be nice to actually know that his stride length is three inches greater than mine,” said Vigano. “If he’s doing it, and he’s similar to me, I could probably do it, too.”

The product will initially focus on runners. But the data gathered by the socks could be useful to golfers looking for information on how they are shifting weight during their strokes; skiers who want to analyze their turns; and diabetics, whose feet often suffer from nerve damage that can lead to amputation. The fabric could also be shaped into other kinds of garments.

“We’ll go beyond socks at some point,” said Vigano. “In an ideal scenario, we want to become the GoreTex of embeddable computing.”

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