Progress update on Tokyo hardware startup’s Orphe LED smart-shoes


This is a guest post authored by Connor Kirk. He is a Kyoto-based writer/translator specializing in tech and startups.

Orphe is an LED smart-shoe hardware development project from Tokyo-based startup “no new folk studio”. We’ve featured this project here on The Bridge a few times in the Japanese edition, but this will be the first article in English.

Starting with a little background, Orphe is a light up shoe designed primarily for performers and artists that uses 9-axis sensors and high-density LED strips built into the soles of the shoes to produce a variety of colors and patterns that react to the movements of the wearer. Coupled with a free app, the color of the lights and other settings can be manipulated over bluetooth. Prototypes of the shoe were developed at the shared hardware development incubation lab DMM.make AKIBA which was established last year in Akihabara, Tokyo. A crowdfunding campaign was launched on Indiegogo in March 2015 and was 214% funded by May. They now have a new teaser site and are accepting pre-orders. Shipment of pre-orders and perks to backers of the project has been given a February 2016 estimate.

With wearables becoming more prevalent, and the entry into the hardware development field becoming more and more accessible, the competition is strong for small startups like “no new folk studio” in the wearable technology field. This year alone we’ve seen a quite a few products operating on a similar concept: wearables or other products with LEDs that can be controlled with a smart device, so what will make Orphe stand out from the crowd?

There are a few things that stand out to me. One of them is the open source aspect of the project. When you buy the shoes, what you get with them is not only the downloadable app, but also an SDK for developing your own applications using the Orphe hardware. They’ve suggested that the hardware could potentially be used as a videogame controller or a musical instrument. One of the first that comes to mind is potential partnerships with developers of rhythm games like DDR, or Bemani games. In their most recent video update, they demonstrated that kicking with the left foot and right foot can trigger different sounds, and that tilt and speed data collected by the 9-axis sensors can be used to manipulate sound in other ways. Just having shoes that can change colors when you move around is fun for a little while, but what I’m really interested in is seeing what kinds of other uses will come out of this. Exactly when the SDK will be released hasn’t been announced yet, but they have said that it is a planned feature of Orphe.

Light up shoes are of course not a new idea. Most of us who grew up in the 90’s probably wore or knew someone who wore L.A. Lights, the hugely popular light up shoe brand that eventually dissolved largely due to their controversial use of poisonous mercury in the tilt switches that powered the LEDs embedded in the children’s shoes. Seeing as Orphe’s Indiegogo page actually references an article about the history of L.A. Lights, we can assume they understand some of the potential pitfalls that exist in the light up shoe field. I haven’t seen any mention so far as to what type of rubber is being used for Orphe’s soles, or how it’s holding up to testing, but seeing as how a pair of these shoes will set you back at least $270 I’d expect that the soles are high quality and won’t fall apart after repeated use like L.A. Lights did. Also, they’ve said that the battery used in the prototype lasts for 3 hours of continuous use, but they are looking at other battery options as well.

A video posted by Kyun_kun (@kyun_kun) on

I’ve heard from a lot of friends and acquaintances that running a crowdfunding campaign can be one of the most stressful things you can imagine. We’ve all seen the stories of successfully funded projects that never actually delivered what they promised. From the looks of it though, I don’t think Orphe will be one of those, but with hundreds of backers anxiously waiting to receive their pre-orders, I can imagine the 10-person “no new folk studio” team is feeling the pressure as they move into the production stage.