Following the death of a sight-impaired relative, Wataru Chino had no choice but to take action. In response to the tragedy, the Honda EV engineer developed an in-shoe navigation system, dubbed Ashirase (both the name of the product and the name of the company) that allows low-sighted people to use their feet to navigate, rather than cell phones or other visual aids. The tactile navigation system has earned the financial backing of Honda’s Ignition startup incubator program and continues to gain traction.
The Ashirase system is two-part, consisting of the dedicated Ashirase navigation app running on the user’s smartphone and a silicone shoe insert cradling a combination motion sensor-electronic compass. Once the user programs their walking destination into the app, the shoe inserts will vibrate in various patterns and tempos — “walk forward” causes vibrations under the balls of the feet, “turn left” rubs the appropriate side of both feet and the speed at which the inserts vibrate indicate proximity to the turn or obstacle.
The idea behind the system is to allow users to remain more aware of their surroundings while they walk, using their feet to navigate rather than repeatedly stopping to consult their smartphones or passersby for directions.
Currently the insert prototypes can only be used in low top sneakers and dress shoes but Chino already has plans to expand the footwear selection. “We are thinking about [new footwear styles], and the idea is twofold at this moment,” Chino told Engadget through an interpreter. “One is to try to change, modifying the [electronic] device so that the shape can be fitted to other types of shoes.”
“Otherwise,” he continued, “what we can do is to change the yellow parts of this device so that it fits other types of shoes” noting that the white “puck”part can be disconnected from the flexible yellow insert that sits around the wearer’s foot and houses the various vibrating navigation gyroscopes. The system has a reported week-long battery life when using the system to navigate an average of three hours a day. Initially, the insert will be offered in generic small, medium and large sizes in Japan but he plans to offer more personalized fittings once the product hits market.
The navigation system is currently a bit limited, based on the Google Maps API rather than an HD map source, in that it will work so long as a navigation data signal is available. That means that the system may not initially work in indoor areas like malls or hotels — though hiking trails, parks and other public lands should be no problem.
Chino and his team are reportedly looking into incorporating either a Personal Dead-reckoning (PDR) system, Wi-Fi-based positioning or IoT navigation capability to help users make their ways through indoor public spaces at a later date. The team also reportedly plans to add public transportation options to the program in the future.
The company plans to release a beta version of the Ashirase system in Japan in October or November of this year. Users will be given free use of the insert and app for one week before being asked for feedback. Following the public beta, Ashirase executives expect the commercialized product to be ready by October 2022 and include a 2,000 - 3,000 yen ($18 - $27) monthly subscription.
Before that can happen, however, the startup is seeking some 200 million yen in additional funding — not including the 70 million yen in equity the Ignition program already provided — in order to scale up to full production.