Smart panels turn one shoe into a companion for any outfit

It’s a tall order, blending high fashion with high tech, but when you’re working with 4-inch heels headed for the runway, the stakes are even higher.

An international team of engineers is taking on this challenge in earnest: They have created a “smart shoe” that, chameleon-like, can change its colors and patterns, according to a wearer’s whims.

Their reasoning: Why cede closet space to a dozen pairs of shoes when you can own one pair that can transform into many?
Volvorii, a startup in Lithuania that uses e-ink technology, is launching a line of shoes called iShuu. The footwear features panels of flexible electronic displays — the kind found on “e-paper” tablet screens and smartwatches — sewn onto the body of the shoes. The screens can display different patterns and color schemes that the wearer selects by using a smartphone app. They are powered by electronics tucked into a cavity in the heel.

Think of the wallpaper on your computer screen, but for shoes.
Wallen Mphepö, the Lithuanian engineer who masterminded the design, said the fit and feel of his iShuu are identical to regular shoes.
“It feels the same, it smells the same, it doesn’t weigh any more,” Mphepö said.

Customers control the patterns the screen displays using an app on their smartphones.

The idea is that the owner will be able to pick a pattern or make a color choice by plugging information into an app.

Mphepö and the Volvorii team, which is based in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Beijing, are betting there will be takers for their wild idea. This month, they began raising money on the crowdfunding site IndieGogo. About two weeks into the monthlong campaign, 139 people have contributed more than half of the target amount of $50,000, and 20 of them have snapped up early edition pairs of shoes, at $149 and $249 each.

Among the early buyers was Giovanni Mancini, the director of product management at the Billerica company E Ink, one of the leading manufacturers of electronic-ink technology.

“This was not intended as fashion for me,” Mancini said of his purchase.

Mancini routinely buys hundreds of products that contain, or claim to contain, electronic ink — a way of checking out the competition. Though he has a growing stash of e-readers, this is the first time that he has seen such technology used on shoes.

When his footwear hits retail stores next year, Mphepö intends to sell the shoes for about $500. He said he also has been talking to designers and shoe ­labels, and he hopes to license the technology.

Most devices that use e-ink don’t encounter the strain and stress that shoes endure as they support a person’s body weight, Mphepö said. Designing for that kind of use was a challenge.

Volvorii paid an independent testing firm in ­Boston to stress-test the product.

“We verified that it actually does work,” said Nate Deschaine, a senior mechanical engineer at Dragon Innovation, which assists hardware startups.

Mphepö got the idea for his shoe while brainstorming applications for smart displays as a student in Taiwan. Months later, while he was working in Beijing, he built a prototype at one of the city’s maker-spaces.

“I didn’t know if people would really like it,” Mphepö said.

He showed it to a friend whose reaction — equal parts incredulity and gimme-that envy — told him that he had something bigger on his hands.

Once he has placed products on store shelves, Mphepö’s next goal would be to bulk up the capabilities of the electronics in his shoe line, perhaps to include activity-tracking abilities like those offered by the Nike+ in-shoe pedometer or the Garmin Foot Pad.

Volvorii probably will also make flats, he said. “What’s more capable of counting steps than your feet?”

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