Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Going faster takes less effort with smart shoes from Carnegie Mellon spinout

By Kris B. Mamula Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Walking faster with less effort is the idea behind a hot new consumer product that looks like skates and is being developed in the city’s East End.

Think Roller Blades, only powered by artificial intelligence that allows each skate to “talk” to the other, instantly coordinating the person’s gait with the rolling resistance of the wheels. So you’re really walking, not skating. Shoes, but smarter.

Think versatility, too: the eight power wheels on each skate were designed to negotiate puddles, sidewalk cracks and pavement divots with ease. Stop walking and the skates quickly slow to a stop – forget the freewheeling of old-style roller skates.

“When they came to me with this idea, I said this was a game changer,” said Dave Mawhinney, executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, private investor and founding board member of the new company, Shift Robotics. “There’s a lot of really amazing conveniences.”

Shift Robotics, founded in 2018, has raised more than $1 million, and a series A round is planned for 2023. Delivery of the first batch of shoes to consumers is expected in March.

The Moonwalkers’ use of artificial intelligence marks an emerging trend in the broader use of the technology, which allows machines to “learn” and make “decisions” based on user choices. Google searches, the ability to dictate texts – even pop-up online advertisements are shaped by artificial intelligence, said Vincent Conitzer, director of the Foundations of Cooperative AI Lab at CMU, who was not involved with Shift Robotics.

“It works for a large variety of problems,” he said. “Bringing AI out into the real world though tends to be harder – driving cars, for example.”

The CMU spinout calls its Moonwalkers the “world’s fastest shoes,” which allow people to “walk at the speed of a run.”

Walking at the “speed of a run” means tooling along at about 7 miles per hour or 250% faster than ordinary walking, said Abe Pleta, 33, one of six full-time Shift Robotics employees and a Washington, Pa., native who has a doctorate degree in automotive engineering from Clemson University. “You feel like you’re on a moving sidewalk,” he said.

And not to worry about slow pokes hogging the sidewalk: the shoes can brake to a full stop from top speed in about three feet, Pleta said.

The combined weight of the shoes, which have been road tested on people ages 15 to 70, is comparable to a gallon of milk and the AA-size lithium ion batteries of the skates last about an hour, or six to seven miles, depending on terrain.

“Once you start walking, that weight just disappears,” said Joseph Yang, 26, Shift Robotics lead software engineer. “If one of the shoes thinks you’re going too fast, it communicates with the other and tells it to slow down. The software is embedded, so everyone gets an individualized experience.”

Shift Robotics has spent nothing on advertising, but word is getting around. A YouTube video shot by Wired magazine host Brent Rose, who took the Moonwalkers out for a spin at the company’s design headquarters in Larimer, was viewed 4 million times in two weeks.

The sweet spot for Moonwalker sales – over 600 have been pre-ordered online at $1,399 a pair – are urban commuters who have to get to the office from the subway, bus stop or parking areas, Mawhinney said.

“The real home run is in densely packed urban areas,” said Mawhinney, adding that the shoes are easily removed and stowed in a backpack. “There’s a real value proposition.”