Artificial intelligence is changing the way we search the web, listen to music and how we define art—and if Xunjie Zhang has his way, A.I. technology will even make us walk a lot faster.
Zhang, the founder of Shift Robotics, has designed special shoes that pair A.I. with sensors and wheels to boost a person’s walking speed by up to 250%.
The shoes look a bit like roller skates, but they are not for skating. The wheels lock up when you’re standing still, and the Moonwalkers—as the shoes are called—are designed for a person to walk with the same heel-to-toe motion that they normally would.
With every stride a person takes, the shoes’ A.I. processes information from the body, adapting the motorized wheels to the user’s gait and providing a natural-feeling acceleration. One early test user describes it as similar to strolling on the moving walkway at an airport, but with a speed that can reach 7 miles per hour.
The shoes are expected to go on sale in limited quantities this summer, though the $1,399 price tag means they’re not for everyone. But even if the Moonwalkers don’t immediately become standard footwear for the masses, they offer a peek of a future that is quickly being reimagined as a result of progress in A.I. technology.
The idea came after he narrowly avoided a car crash
Zhang came up with the idea after he was nearly crushed by a car while riding his scooter to work in the streets of Pittsburgh, where he graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotic Institute. Recounting the harrowing experience to friends and colleagues, Zhang discovered how common such incidents have become as e-bikes and scooters have gained in popularity.
Whether it’s a crash or a brake malfunction, “pretty much everyone I know” has had a scary experience on an electric “micromobility” vehicle, he says. Scooters and e-bikes provide a fast and efficient mode of urban transportation, but sharing the road with two-ton cars is inherently dangerous.
“That really got me thinking, Why do we have to be stuck with slow walking?” Zhang told Fortune in an interview. “Is there any way that we can make the sidewalk more effective?”
He found his answer by starting Shift Robotics and formed a team of engineers and sneaker designers to create Moonwalkers. The six-person startup, based in Pittsburgh, has raised more than $329,000 on Kickstarter so far, and plans to seek funding from other avenues in the future.
Bumps and cracks are no issue. #Moonwalkers https://t.co/kaGeqzcNVV pic.twitter.com/XY4gCOS1NK— Shift Robotics (@shiftrobotics) October 28, 2022
Shift designed the shoes with an adaptive A.I. drivetrain that powers the 4 urethane wheels on each shoe and boosts the wearer’s walking speed. Each pair comes fit with custom control modules and can communicate to the other by passing acceleration and data, which is then passed through a neuromuscular model. (explained at about 2:20 here) To climb stairs, a user lifts their heel to switch into a full lock mode.
The shoes have a range of 5 to 7 miles and take an hour and a half to charge. And they’ve been designed to handle tough terrain, like the cracked sidewalks that plague Pittsburgh when the concrete freezes in the wintertime. By making shoes that can function there, Zhang believes the Moonwalkers will be able to handle most of the sidewalks across the country and worldwide.
While an e-bike can go a longer distance on a charge than a pair of Moonwalkers, Zhang thinks the compact size and light weight of his A.I.-powered footwear will appeal to many people.
“You can tuck that into the backpack. You can be super seamless. It is just way more convenient to use and carry everywhere that we think in terms of the value, the size, the benefit we bring—we are in the range of a premium bike.”
The shoes can be pre-ordered on the Shift Robotics website, but Zhang isn’t aiming for scale right away. The company is planning to ship hundreds of pairs to its Kickstarter backers in the coming months, which it hopes will help validate the product and identify areas where features can be added. Beyond those orders, Zhang says Shift has received pre-orders around 1,000 pairs. Shift is also currently carrying out regulation compliance tests to eventually make the shoes available in Europe and South America.
While Zhang says the company will initially lose money on the Moonwalkers, even at the $1,399 price, the company is banking on winning over loyal customers who will help spread the word and spur demand for later versions of the shoes.
For now, the shoes are one size fits all and fit people who wear a men’s size of 8 to 11 especially well, but he hopes that later versions can have more size customization. Zhang said that future versions of the Moonwalkers could potentially be integrated directly into sneakers, depending on advances in motor and battery pack technology.
“We’re in this challenge of production hell, production ramp up,” Zhang said. “But these are the things that we will be doing—more testing in different various user cases, various scenarios, a lot more than what we are doing just on the street right now.”
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