The Future of Footwear – by Alex Witty
Alex Witty is one of our (BSc) Product Design students. Alex has won several awards and prizes, including the ‘Santander Universities – University of Brighton Growth Grant’, and the ‘Fred Maillardet Breakthrough Award’.
Here’s Alex’s story in his own words:
“I’m Alex Witty, a 3rd year Product Design (BSc) student at the University of Brighton and I’m just coming to the end of my placement year which, with COVID-19 and other events, has proved to be memorable to say the least!
I started my first company, Witty Ltd in July 2019, filed my first patent in May 2020, helped develop a new product for Seymourpowell, one of the world’s leading product design companies, and successfully fled France amidst the impending Coronavirus lockdown, minutes before the borders closed.
I was encouraged to take an entrepreneurial year to further develop one of my University projects, as it was seen to have commercial potential.
The idea was conceived on a coach heading from my hometown of Bath to London to see a friend. Looking out of the window, I noticed a crowd of people of different ages and ethnicities walking down the street, all with two things in common, a phone in their hand and the same brand of shoe on their feet. The image stuck with me for the rest of the journey and thankfully, due to the coach driver’s poor navigational skills and London’s gridlocked rush hour traffic, our journey was extended by an additional hour and half, which gave me even more time to mull over what I had seen, and jot down a few passing thoughts that this image had provoked.
Having recently watched the film ‘Back to the Future’ and falling in love with Marty McFly’s self-lacing magnetic space sneakers, I entertained the idea of somehow powering your cell phone through your own foot movement. I remember literally feeling the number of footsteps the crowd I saw were taking, and thinking how cool it would be to harness that energy. I wondered if one could design a shoe that could capture the energy generated through walking and magically send it to your phone to keep your battery charged all day long, never missing a phone call, never stressing about running out of power – and staying fully connected at all times, even when on the move, with no easy access to power points.
The Piezo Project incorporates Piezoelectric crystals embedded within footwear which, when compressed, generate electricity that is stored within an internal battery and accessed via a USB port, removable battery or wireless charging.
The Piezoelectric crystals are housed within miniature flexible disks, seamlessly integrated within the inner sole of the shoe to maximise the energy automatically gathered by the user’s footsteps whilst going about their daily routine.
Even though more than half of us run out of battery power every day, 96% of people do not carry a portable charger with them as they say they are too bulky and easy to leave behind, and 66% of us suffer from ‘nomophobia’, a fear of being without a working mobile phone.
The Piezo Project solves this problem by enabling the user to generate their own easily accessible renewable energy, removing the need to hunt for a mains power when phone charge is low.
2018 saw the most high-profile addition of technology in footwear: Nike’s ‘HyperAdapt’, the world’s first ‘self-lacing’ shoes. Within the last two years, we have seen shoes that warm up your feet, measure your running style, track your location and count your footsteps, however no-one has correctly solved the very real problem of running out of mobile phone charge.
Nike’s successful launch of the ‘HyperAdapt’ series demonstrates that technology within shoes is more than just a gimmick, it’s the future of footwear. This is further demonstrated by the growing Smart Shoe market, which is expected to reach $223 million by the end of 2026, with the overall wearables market projected at $25 billion by 2020.
A few people have attempted to create a self-charging shoe; however, none have been technically viable or designed with commercial ambition.
The Piezo Project could potentially give the 4.68 billion smartphone users around the world who suffer from ‘nomophobia’, the reassurance of power on the move – and connectivity wherever they are.
During the course of the year, I applied for a number of grants to help produce a prototype and was delighted to win the ‘Santander Universities – University of Brighton Growth Grant’, which helped me fund my patent application. I was also awarded the ‘SW Creative Technology Network Automation grant’ and in addition, was honoured to receive the ‘Fred Mallairdet Breakthrough Award’, which gave me further confidence to pursue the development of my product.
It’s been a hectic year, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the UK’s brightest engineers and designers, who have kindly taken me under their wing and supported me in my pursuit of technological advancements within footwear.
With a patent filed, and a prototype being finessed, there is still a way to go, however I am optimistic about the future and I’m looking forward to entering my final year at the University of Brighton.”