Foot ID – Laser Scanning for Runners

“Lasers”. Despite their everyday uses from DVD players to remote pet guidance systems, the phrase still conjures up powerful, dramatic visions of yesterday’s future. So, you can imagine my excitement as I placed my foot into the magic box where lasers were about to zap and scan my appendage…

A bit of background here. Everyone’s foot is a different shape and the shape can tell you some interesting things. From the pedestrian – sizing information, to interesting – the type of gait they might have. Athletes will likely care about these types of things. Because for many of us, that’s literally where the rubber meets the road. Runners can be a fickle lot, especially about their shoes. I won’t get into the whole dissertation of types of gaits and shoes – if you care to know more, Google is your classroom. Needless to say, most runners typically spend a fair bit of time trying out different shoes to find one that works for them. What if we can use the wonders of technology, and “lasers” in particular, to shorten the process?

3D laser scanners are increasingly commonplace for a bunch of different tasks. Asics has such a device for scanning feet at their stores. Their system combines a static 3D foot scan with a high-speed video of the victim running on a treadmill. It’s called Foot ID, because they have a respectable marketing department.

When I was in NYC last week, I made a beeline for the Asics Store, because technology is fun. Plus, I run in Asics anyway, so it would be fun to talk shop with the guys there. There was a customer already on the treadmill, trying to find new shoes for a race in two weeks (good luck with that). To distract me while I waited, there was some paperwork to complete. After giving up distressingly personal information like my weight and best half and full marathon times, I was ready to be irradiated.

I place my foot onto what looks like a small photocopier. They close it up and things whirr for about 10 seconds while I try to keep from fidgeting. A 3D model of my foot pops up and starts spinning on the computer screen. (I happen to work in the 3D graphics field and I’m starting to think that all developers have decided that all 3D renderings must spin majestically onscreen). Rinse and repeat the process for the other foot.

The next step is to run on the treadmill for the dynamic analysis. The staff equip me with a minimalist set of racing flats that I’m sure will reveal every last wobble and inefficiency in my stride, that is, if my feet don’t collapse into a pronating heap first. Off I run on the treadmill, as the tape rolls.

The analysis bit was rather interesting, and as you can see from the screenshots, the “lasers” capture way too much dimensional information about my feet. I snap picture with full intent to pore over the stats later, although I do verify with the staff that I’m in the right size and width of shoe. The video was rather revealing, as there are nice demarcation dots on the shoes to reveal (mis)alignments, as my foot slaps down on the stride.

Much to my surprise, I am shown to have a neutral gait. Years ago, I was diagnosed by the salesdude at the local running shop, to be a mild pronator in need of stability shoes. I have been happily running in stability shoes the whole time. The staff grab some neutral shoes and video me running again on the treadmill. I throw all caution to the wind and crank up the treadmill faster, as that would really reveal any gait problems. (I avoid flailing my arms like a idiot). All feels good subjectively, and the video shows that my feet aren’t doing anything stupid. Their net advice is if my stability shoes are working, stay with them. But it looks like I could successfully run in neutral shoes as well.

This is not a bad thing, since I like messing with gear (it’s a guy thing). I will experiment with some neutral shoes in the off-season.

A common question I get is can I now order a custom shoe based on my Foot ID results. No (I wish!). Or maybe the answer is not yet…

This is where I want this tech to take us – fully custom shoes, not only built for the size of a foot, but containing the proper squishy and stiff bits to match the forces applied each foot, as it slaps down on the road.

Currently, we try out different pairs and find one that works. Even then, the solution is an approximation, based on what’s available on the market. Imagine having shoes that are custom fabricated for our feet and gait! We have the measurement tech – lasers for size, video for motion and force sensors exist too. It’s a matter of putting it all together and matching it with emerging custom component manufacturing tech to produce the parts.

That’s the future and I want it now.

Photos by Linda Bozzetto.

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One thought on “Foot ID – Laser Scanning for Runners

  1. hmmm, custom fabricated running shoes … the skating world has been doing this for years. Wonder how long it’ll take the running world to catch up. 😀

    Great blog Mike. I’ll bookmark this. ~christine~

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