Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Keep track of wayward family members with these high-tech kicks.
Last week, a British artist named Dominic Wilcox fashioned a pair of leather shoes that had the design world buzzing with admiration. Wilcox’s shoes, a collaborative effort with Stamp Shoes to celebrate the shoemaking history of England’s Northhamptonshire region, are impeccably stylish – red stitching on gray calf-skin leather, sleek wood heel support, playful designs etched into the soles. What attracted the most attention, though, is that there’s a GPS module located in the heel of the left shoe. With an array of LED lights embedded in the fabric, these shoes can literally point your way home.
News of Wilcox’s project, titled "No Place Like Home" (he was inspired by The Wizard of Oz), found its way to Patrick Bertagna. "What they’re doing is perhaps novel and interesting," Bertagna says, "but it’s a far cry from our model."
Bertagna has spent the last decade trying to equip shoes with navigational systems. His company, GTX, has done other navigation technology projects in the interim, but always with footwear on the horizon. This January, in partnership with New Jersey shoe company Aetrex, GTX introduced the Navistar, their first line of GPS-enabled shoes.
The announcement did not make waves on the design blogs, perhaps because these shoes are explicitly aimed – in marketing and in design – at a historically unhip group, one that Bertagna feels most needs Global Positioning System technology beneath its feet: the elderly.
"There’s probably about six million people who have Alzheimer’s and dementia – 35 million worldwide, and that’s supposed to grow to 100 million in the next few decades," says Bertagna. "That’s a vast number of people of which a vast majority wander off."
The Navistar line, which includes four models for each gender, two in white and two in black, is designed to help caregivers and children keep a hidden eye on grandparents. The shoes transmit navigation data to a computer system that delivers it to the caregiver, who can set up the system online with an electronic perimeter – what Bertagna calls a geofence -- that sends an SMS to his or her phone when the boundary has been crossed. A pair costs $299, and the Tracking Plan is an additional $34.99 per month.
The importance of this idea, Bertagna believes, lies in the subtlety of the device. “A lot of people with cognitive disorders have forms of paranoia, so you don’t want to get them scared,” he says. He thinks similarly equipped shoes could have a variety of uses, from law enforcement to dangerous diplomatic missions. The shoes are doubly covert: they can hide the location technology from the wearer, or from a nefarious stranger. Or potentially from both.
Bertagna first got the idea after 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped near Salt Lake City in 2002. "We thought, 'There’s got to be a better way to keep an eye on kids.'"
But at the time, the technology didn't exist. "It was like people in the 1950s saying we want to go to the moon," Bertagna recalls. "Every engineer I spoke to, I’d say I wanted a device the size of a Zippo lighter, three or four days battery life, for a few hundred dollars. They’d say they could get one for a thousand dollars, with eight hours of battery life, the size of a shoebox." And making shoes for children proved challenging. They run, they step in puddles, and their feet grow rapidly. So Bertagna and his team turned to the elderly. They hope to have a model for kids out soon.
Engineering improvements have not only made Bertagna’s first run possible, they’ve also opened up the technology to experimenters like Wilcox. Becky Stewart, an audio expert at Codasign, helped Wilcox with the technology, and when I talked to her on the phone she made the tech sound fairly simple, at least in the hands of a couple of competent designers. The left shoe has the hardware, a GPS chip and a small radio transmitter to coordinate with the right shoe, or as she put it, “the dumb shoe.” If you put in a destination using a USB attachment, the LEDs on one shoe indicates the direction, while a bar on the other indicates how far you have to go.
It remains to be seen whether such a device, if mass produced, would conflict with the 70+ patents and patents pending that Bertagna and GTX have filed over the years. It’s also not clear if regular people would really buy these, though the interest in Tom Loois’ Blank Ways project seems to indicate that at least some readers of this website would like to track their own movements. And while GPS has gotten cheaper, a chip still costs about $50, and installation takes time, money and ingenuity. A pair of Aetrex shoes and a yearlong subscription to the Tracking Plan costs more than $700.
Even as prices go down, though, will kids be willing to give up their Air Force Ones to wear shoes that allow mommy and daddy to keep an eye on them?
Top image courtesy of GTX.