Creating Ultra-Personalised Shoes Combining Shoe Data with Life Data

Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter
5 min readMay 6, 2018
Photo by Bart van Overbeeke, courtesy of Troy Nachtigall

An old shoe-dog saying goes something like “the shoes you wear in your 20s and 30s are what will hurt your back in your 70s and 80s”. Troy Nachtigall, a Fashion Designer dedicated to Wearable Technology and a Marie Curie Researcher at the Technical University of Eindhoven, wants to scientifically prove that correlation, that if you keep walking in a certain shoe with a particular style, in 40 years you won’t be able to walk at all. And to use a data-centric approach to fix this.

We tend to treat our feet very badly and this has a big impact on our body. Troy’s goal is to combine shoe data with life data (your age, the health of your feet and how you use them, etc) to create ultra personalised products and services It’s a step beyond mass customisation where you can customise individual things for individual people. While doing so he’s also scaffolding together traditional crafting and modern technology.

Photo by Bart van Overbeeke, courtesy of Troy Nachtigall

It all starts with how can you make an object that iteratively works with the customer to understand them and their needs throughout its lifetime. And then building the next object with the data from the first object. This is ultra-personalisation, where instead of just doing a bespoke level of tailoring you’re using data on your kinetic movement, your social situations, your topographic fit, even the sweatiness of your body, to understand your behavioural fit. It’s not making a unique version of a product like bespoke does but making a unique version by using your anatomy, your biology and your social behaviours.

The first step is a 3D body scan for the topology of the body and feet of the user, followed by the addition of layers of data collected from the user, from physical fit to behavioural fit, considering also social and style layers like how you fit into society (e.g. if you’re a journalist, a designer, an accountant) and how do you need to represent yourself. Based on this they can also customise the materials to adapt to the climate you live in, or the internal climate you spend more time in.

“We are looking at the difference between customisation and personalisation. Designing for a person’s performance and needs”.

Troy Nachtigall

Big sports brands are investing heavily into personalised shoes, like limited editions where the sole is optimised for running in a specific city. It’s a great expression of mass customisation limited to the analysis of your conditions in one given moment, though it doesn’t give you many options beyond that. What Troy is trying to show in his PDH research is that it’s not about just one pair of shoes. If you consider that you’re going to be walking from the age of 2 to 82, that’s 80 years of walking. And the worse kind of material you can do shoes from is styrene-butadiene rubber or SBR, widely used for making soles. It falls apart after about a million cycles, and this comes down to needing about 160 pairs of shoes in your lifetime if you just consider just the materials, not fashion. Statistically most people in Europe own 340 pairs of shoes in their lifetime and in the US it’s a lot more.

“We’re using a lot more than we probably need. Each pair of shoes can inform the next pair of shoes what it needs to do for us”.

Current shoe makers don’t really want to have a two-way relationship with their users. It’s better for their business model to sell you a new pair of shoes than fixing your existing one, and cobblers are disappearing too. Most brands make it difficult to repair or use a mix of materials which tend to be non-recyclable. The use of data is not transparent and often used against you to sell you something. What happens if we can send big data back to the shoe companies, lets say scientifically proving a certain brand’s shoe falls apart after 3 months of use? And if they don’t want to improve or find alternative methods to making soles that are more recyclable, could users force them to do so by shaming them based on real data?

Photo courtesy of Troy Nachtigall

To explore these and other possibilities, Nachtigall has run digital craftsmanship courses where students are provided with a “make your own sneaker” toolkit. Students build and wear the shoes, which is far from perfect, for about a week and they come back to the lab to personalise them. They use digital technology and techniques to change the shoe to make it comfortable and aesthetically pleasant. Some of the tools they use are laser cutting, 3D milling, 3D printing, digital embroidery and thermal heat plastic transfer.

The digital craftsmanship class creates a new archetype of designer. You really have to grasp the craftsmanship aspect, the material understanding that comes through the meditation of making and then you need to learn how to work with machines digitally. So very often it’s about being one with the machine, putting your hands inside the 3D printer while it’s printing and move things around, adding to the traditional toolkit that a craftsman would typically use. Another important aspect of the course is that it guides students to make product-service systems, taking a holistic view of the thing and the communication of the thing at the same time. So for example students have to design not only the shoe but also the website.

“We see digital craftsmanship as this experiment in possibility on how do we not only understand the craft but also understand the technology and treat technology as a material in itself”.

Photo by Bart van Overbeeke, courtesy of Troy Nachtigall

You can find out more about Troy’s work on his personal website and on Solemaker.io.

Originally published at www.gchicco.com on May 6, 2018.

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Gianfranco Chicco
The Craftman Newsletter

Curator of The Craftsman Newsletter. Conference director for hire, digital-physical experiences, marketing & storytelling. Japanophile. ✌