Smart Footwear Brings Users’ Feet to Life In A Virtual Reality World

From Google VR to Oculus, the virtual reality industry has scaled exponentially in the last few years. With the increased interest comes additional issues, and companies have been trying to address challenges with motion sickness, sense of place and more to attract more users into alternate realities.

Entrepreneur Jeff Guard was an early adopter of VR devices, but quickly saw the limitations with how a consumer controls movement in virtual spaces. He thought the current methods of using a joystick or pointing to a spot ahead of you were not very effective. “After just a little bit of research, I realized that everyone else was saying the same thing,” says Guard.

After experimenting with a few microprocessors and sensors underneath a shoe insole, Guard wrote a simple program. The prototype ended up “emulating the movement keys” for PC games on a keyboard, allowing users to see their feet in the virtual environment and move more intuitively.

In the summer of 2016, he founded Brilliant Sole to take the product to market.

“We’re looking to work with both lower and higher-end VR products by putting your feet in virtual reality. Our system incorporates vibration motors in addition to measuring the force and motion of your feet. Everything is embedded in the shoe insole,” says Guard, who previously founded a payment startup.

The hardware charges wirelessly and offers a two-way communication system for developers to input data and customize the movement profiles. Embedded sensors track the foot’s force at specific pressure points to allow users to walk in place or in whatever direction they want to go,  and two haptic motors help the user ‘feel’ the ground beneath them.

The accompanying desktop application helps developers add in movement features and data for specific video games and other applications.

Guard says that, though HTC Vive and Oculus come with positional tracking and Vive offers additional trackers for other parts of your body, these additions are not available in every system.

“The insole gives you full flexibility to work within the video game and create a peripheral,” says Guard.

“With Brilliant Sole, we ultimately want to be able to have you positionally track your feet (be able to look down and see them), then be able to control locomotion and feel the different ground surfaces underneath your feet through haptic feedback. It feels more natural than moving around with a joystick.”

Guard and his team already have customers and will really enter the market in early 2019 with a crowdfunding campaign for direct-to-customer  pre-orders model. The development kit will be on sale for developers to customize the soles to their preferences.

Following the public launch of the product, they hope to identify strategic B2B partners to further scale. Guard shares that they’ve found applications for the insole in medicine, sports performance measurement and more.

“The good thing is that solving VR locomotion with a smart footwear platform required a really flexible system. It has to be able to work with mobile and PC plus have a two-way communication feature. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to create those other applications on top of our platform,” he says.

The Wilmington, North Carolina-based startup recently received a small investment from the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs group, after bootstrapping to this point. This investment kicked off fundraising for the team as they’re currently raising a $500,000 seed round.

Guard and his team are preparing to present the demo at the 2019 Consumer Electronic Show after being selected through a CES Unveiled event.