It is being touted as the next big thing in wearable technology and the best part is, it is of Indian provenance. After smart glasses and smart watches, it is time to welcome smart shoes into our lives. Though Google Glass may still be out of reach for those of us in India, we can definitely get our hands on the smart shoes made by Secunderabad-based company Ducere Technologies. Called Lechal (which means ‘take me along’ in Hindi), these shoes sync with smartphones through an app to provide users with a variety of information — from directions to your destination to the number of calories you have burnt.
The app helps the shoes connect to the GPS-based app Google Maps, and directions are thereby relayed to the user through vibrations in either the left or right shoe. The app can keep track of your fitness targets, the distance you cover and routes you travel frequently.
It all started in 2011, when MIT and University of Michigan graduates Anirudh Sharma and Krispian Lawrence met through a common friend. “We both love tinkering and playing with technology and building products,” says Lawrence, CEO and co-founder, Ducere Technologies. When their pet project of a haptic feedback-based shoe began taking shape for real, both Lawrence and Sharma quit their jobs to start Ducere Technologies as a two-person company in an apartment in Secunderabad.
“I was working in the US as a patent lawyer and Anirudh was working at HP Labs in Bengaluru at the time. I convinced him to quit his job and start the company with me,” he adds.
The initial drafts of the product were meant to address accessibility problems faced by the visually challenged. While canes help them identify obstacles, they can’t help the visually challenged with navigation; and other devices that assist them rely on audio feedback, which can be difficult to follow in noisy and congested areas. The Lechal shoe works on the concept of haptic feedback, which means that it provides directions through vibrations, whose intensity can be customised to indicate an upcoming turn, whether it is 500 metres or 50 metres away. But once they started testing the product and its range of applications, the duo realised it could have a wider appeal. “While it was initially designed to assist the visually challenged, we realised that since there were many navigation and fitness applications in the market, we could position it as a lifestyle product as well,” says Lawrence.
Walk this way
Lechal offers two main products — a complete set of shoes and just the Lechal insoles, which can fit into any normal pair of shoes. “We are not pricing the two products any differently. It depends on the user, he can either buy the shoe or opt for the insoles,” says Lawrence. Here’s how it works. Removable sensors — powered by two rechargeable lithium batteries — inside the insoles respond to gestures such as a tap of the toes to help you record a landmark and a snap of fingers to know the power status of your charger. The shoes are also built to withstand rain. The mobile application that the sensors sync with is compatible with iOS, Android and Windows smartphones. Currently, the shoes are designed in India and manufactured in China. “Once we reach a certain scale, we could bring production back to India but until then, China remains our only viable option,” says Lawrence.
Go the extra mile
Lechal can be synced with smartphones through an app. It uses Google Maps to give navigational instructions through vibrations in either the left or right shoe. The device also acts as a fitness tool by keeping a check on calories burnt
Individual vendors supply the different components that go into each shoe, with the final product getting assembled at multiple factories in China. Though Lawrence used his experience as a patent lawyer to get 24 international and Indian patents for Lechal, the founders realise copies may be inevitable.
“Once the product is out, it will only take about eight months for someone in China to replicate it. But we believe that we have the first-mover advantage and bad copies will only make our product look a lot better,” he adds. Besides, Ducere is currently in the process of setting up online and phone tech support, in addition to the standard guarantee offered with the shoes.
The sports shoes and insoles on offer — available in both black and red — are likely to be priced at ₹6,000 in India and between $100 and $150 in overseas markets Though the shoes go on sale in stores in major metros from September, they can be pre-ordered through the company’s website. Ducere is in talks with retailers and distributors to expand its footprint within India and abroad.
According to Lawrence, the shoes have generated much interest across the world, particularly in Japan, the US, the UK and Europe, and the company has already received orders for 25,000 pairs. Lawrence is confident that Ducere will be able to sell 100,000 pairs by March 2015. “Though we have not rolled out a direct marketing campaign, we have received a lot of interest solely on the basis of word of mouth,” he adds.
Ducere is tying up with non-profit organisations and eye institutes in the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to sell the shoes at affordable prices. In India, the company has tied up with the LV Prasad Eye Institute to ensure that its products reach more visually challenged people. The institute’s principal investigator, Dr Anthony Vipin Das, is working on a study to test Lechal’s effectiveness as an assistive device. “Lechal has been a life-changing experience for patients who have tried it and the best thing about the product is that it is non-intrusive and vastly improves the direction orientation of the patients,” Das says.
According to him, while the cane can never be replaced as it is used for the identification of the visually challenged and immediate obstacles, the shoes could act as a perfect match for the cane.Right now, the company is providing a subsidy of 30-50% on the shoes it is selling to the institute. “As we scale up, we hope to increase that subsidy further. The ultimate vision is to provide the shoes to the visually challenged at $1,” says Lawrence.
The right fit
So, how does Lechal compare with other wearable tech gadgets? For starters, motion trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone are focused on health and fitness and do not provide navigation. Then, not everyone is comfortable with the Google Glass as it is quite noticeable and might not get accepted into mainstream usage. “Lechal is the most non-intrusive way of incorporating wearable technology into our lives. No one will even know that you are using it,” says Lawrence. Since it works on haptic feedback, you don’t have to keep looking at a screen for directions, as you would have to with a smartphone. And since the technology is built into a shoe, it is unlikely that you would ever leave home without it.
While Google Maps works like a dream in developed countries, how will the technology keep track of the navigation challenges in India, where there are numerous alleys, unnamed streets and sudden route changes on the way?
“There are definite challenges but Google Maps has vastly improved between 2012 and 2014 and things will only get better from here on. However, we have made several provisions for the developing landscape. If there is a particular gully you regularly take, you can make the shoes map the route and also tag any speed breakers or potholes that you might face so that it gives you an indication the next time around. These are small chinks that can be ironed out over time,” says Lawrence.
Ducere has raised $2 million from angel investors so far and is looking to raise $4-5 million to market its products. While Lawrence declined to discuss products the company is set to roll out in future, he admitted that they will be even more efficient and will still be based on wearable technology. “It took us three years to take our product from concept to production. However, our learning curve for other products will definitely be faster, given our experience with the shoes. We now also have a good set of vendors who we can source from,” he adds.
Ducere has its sights set on the wearable tech market in India. “With 55% of our population under the age of 35, there is huge potential for wearable tech. The right time to be in any market is before the explosion and we pride ourselves on being the first Indian company in this space,” says Lawrence. Currently, wearable tech is the buzzword not just in India, but across the world. Estimated to be around $5.26 billion in 2014, the wearable technology market is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2018. With a market potential like that, Ducere Technologies is definitely in the right place with the right product at the right time.