Imagine telling your shoes where you want to go, and them telling you how to get there. Sounds like a set-up for the next Pixar movie, doesn’t it? Well, Netherlands-based Hi-Tec, a leader in footwear innovation, just introduced the Navigator | Waterproof GPS Guidance Shoe, the first hiking boot that guides you to your destination using a series of vibrations. In addition, the technology monitors your activity so you can use it for workouts including setting and keeping track of your goals. We got a pair of these shoes to test out and took them around NYC to see how they performed.
RESULTS: They work! There are still a few bugs and the shoes got a bit lost at times, but ultimately they got us to our destination.
The Navigator I Waterproof Shoes are a fantastic concept and when they worked, they were very convenient. For the realization of this product Hi-Tec partnered up with the Lechel (pronounced Lee-chill) by Ducere Technologies, a company in Hyderabad, India that originally created a technology for the 285 million visually impaired people across the globe that needed a different way of communicating with the map on their phone. The way the shoes work is the sole of each boot has an insert called a “pod” that vibrates in a series of patterns when prompted by your phone. So, for example, you feel a vibration on your left foot that indicates when you should turn left, or in your right foot when its time to turn that direction.
The pods rely on a dedicated Lechal app that has a variety of features that explore the possibilities of this new technology. It works on both Android and iPhones and doesn’t even need to be connected to data to function. Lechal stores maps on your phone, counts your steps, calculates calories, measures the distance traveled, and gives you the option of modifying the route you take to your destination to meet fitness goals. You can even join a community of users to share your data and remotely compete against one another.
How we tested them
We took the shoes out around New York City in various environments. The places we tested were a combination of; (1) streets between tall buildings that can obscure satellite connection, (2) streets between short buildings and a clear view of the sky, and (3) Central Park. Because the technology is designed to be used without looking at your screen, we selected our route, confirmed the address of our destination, and stuffed the phone in our pocket. We tried to rely solely on the device to guide us even if it was taking us in the wrong direction.
To monitor our progress, we used a secondary application that kept track of our position and created a trail. This helped identify when and if the satellite connection was weak or became lost, and kept track of our progress during our urban hike. We also turned the map on at the start of the trip and turned it off again when we arrived at each destination.
The Lechel Technology – A Step In The Right Direction!
All puns aside, as far as wearable technology goes, the Lechel is a clever and effective way to further connect us to the power of our mobile phones. For the first product of its kind on the market, it is fairly accurate and once you learn the vibration patterns they feel intuitive. The alerts go off at set distance to warn you of approaching direction changes and can be set to a variety of intensities based on your preference. If you have headphones, there are even audio cues that synch up with each instruction and the best part is they don’t interfere like a GPS navigation instruction when you’re having a conversation. As a result, the Lechel does a great job of eliminating the need to look at your phone at all.
As far as performance goes, the app still has some kinks to work out but got us to our destination each time. We’ll discuss these in turn:
1. Once the pods are in the shoes it can take many attempts to connect to the app. To connect efficiently, we couldn’t be standing upright but instead had to bend down and place our phone right next to our feet.
2. The App tends to crash. This happened while doing a variety of functions, but specifically when downloading maps.
3. Speaking of maps, although you can store your maps “offline,” the app does not indicate which maps you’ve downloaded, where they are stored, or even if you already have one. This can be problematic because these maps can be HUGE at 500MB each and we don’t know how to delete them without uninstalling the app.
4. No off-road information, only streets. The application does not recognize trails, even in Central Park. The only way to get to any location inside the park is to find the nearest entrance that the app recognizes and go in search of it yourself. After getting you to the park, you’re on your own from there. You can see that the app does recognize roads that cut through the park and you can select buildings inside the park, but not even large features like the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir can be selected. Note that the “trail” on the second photo is an access road that runs through the park.
The photos above demonstrate that the app does recognize when you are inside the park, but still provides directions from the closest entrance and not your position. When turned on, however, the shoes provided accurate directions along trails to exit the park.
These following two photos show first what the Lechel app believed our position was, and the second photo is our actual position in the park.
5. Even at high intensity, short vibrations are easy to miss and sometimes provide wrong instructions. Upon reviewing the trail created by the monitoring application, there is no point at which satellite connection was lost, yet the application “got lost” several times. We were told to incorrectly turn when no turns were available, so we switched sides of the road, and several times the app simply did not provide an instruction. The first image is the original path predicted by Leches, and the second is the actual path the shoes told us to take.
6. The app gets VERY lost on complex turns. Following instructions, we walked back and forth several times because the instruction for “slight turn” was not used, instead the “regular turn” instruction notification went off. We walked back and forth hoping for the app to pick up on it, but ultimately deliberately turned in the wrong direction at which point the app corrected.
Note that the app provided instructions accurate to the walking trails inside the park
7. Trouble when other Bluetooth devices are connected. We used a Bluetooth headset that seemed to interfere with the Lechel. At first there was a lot of errors, missed directions, and delayed notifications. At one point, we disconnected the headset and Lechel’s maps immediately became much more responsive. At this time, opening the app showed the dialogue “Pods connected” that normally appears only initially.
8. Typing Addresses has to be annoyingly specific. When I put in my address in NYC, the top result was in Brooklyn, the next in NJ, then Ohio… but not my actual address. Retyping it in a different way resulted in a different set, also not including the right one. Finally, a third way that included typing out “street” instead of “St.” resulted in an option for my address. This can be an issue when going to a place you’ve never been as it can result in getting hopelessly lost while walking.
The Hi-Tec Navigator Shoes
The Hi-Tec Navigator I Waterproof Low hiking shoes are a solid choice for this first version of the product. They have a high quality and durable sole made by Michelin rubber. The boots also offer rugged toe and ankle bumpers, attractive suede uppers with plenty of cushioning, and gusseted material tongue and standard lacing complete with slightly elastic cords. The shoe has a bit of weight to it, but feels deliberately designed for rugged terrain, frequent travel, and longevity.
This hiking shoe is true to fit and comfortable enough for extended use. It is low cut, so while it sheds water well and is designed to be waterproof, we don’t recommend it on soaked trails. The upper materials are leather with Dri-Tec waterproof, breathable membrane and i-shield technology to repel water and dirt, combined with nylon on the tongue. The inside features micro-fleece moisture wicking lining and padding on the collar and tongue. The midsole is constructed of Impact absorbing high rebound XLR8>>CMEVA and houses a molded heel chassis that cradles the ankle. It all sits on a single piece of tread that features aggressive multi-directional lugs integrated with a “fork shank” that promotes flexibility in addition to stability.
The sole houses the Lechel pods and can be a source of frustration. First, as a result of the space necessary for the pods, it feels extra thick. This causes the shoe to feel very shallow around the ankle and initially gives a feeling that it might slip off. But, more importantly, the soles are troublesome to put back in. Visually, they seem to be three parts; the material layer under the foot, a rubber-like material for cushioning, and a rigid rubber that houses the pods. The rubber material has a good amount of friction and because of this requires lots of effort to push back in every time you recharge your pods. One trick we learned to avoid this while testing was to only lift the heel of the sole to slip the pods in and out.
As far as performance goes, the Navigator is comfortable and feels durable. Once you put it on, you can’t really feel the Lechel device until it vibrates and after several miles the “shallow” feeling described above disappears. We scrambled over rocks, hiked dirt trails, and walked around NYC with and without weight. The shoes did not fatigue the foot, breathed well and did not become unreasonably hot. Best of all, they didn’t let any water in when we stomped through puddles either. The sturdy sole bends well while providing ample support on technical trails and the tread grips without issue.
All in all, the Navigator I Waterproof is a good choice as the first vehicle for this technology and we look forward to being able to download trail maps or hooking this up to our DeLorme devices for wilderness travel. Hi-Tec still has a few bugs to work out, particularly with the app, but the possibilities are definitely intriguing.
The shoe is not yet available in the US, but you can find it on the UK site for £229.99 or $280.36 USD at this link.