Shaping the Future: Alberto Villarreal Speaks @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Alberto Villarreal is a Mexico City-born industrial designer. His project BrightWalk was a runner up in the 2007 Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition.

Alberto Villarreal: My project is called BrightWalk. It also uses piezoelectric technology but in a different way [than Elizabeth Redmond’s PowerLeap]. In this case, instead of using the energy to apply to the environment it’s actually a wearable device that the user has put on.

I’ve been practicing running for a long time and have realized two things. First is that we generate an enormous amount of energy just stepping on the floor. We don’t use that energy for anything and with so many people who walk and run there is a big source of energy. The second thing I realized is that for people who like to run in the dark it becomes a safety issue. People run in the streets and there are cars, which is a potential cause of accidents. I wanted to create shoes that can be illuminated using the energy we generate while walking and running.

Piezoelectrics convert pressure into electric energy. The other technology I wanted to apply was electro-luminescent polymers, which are plastics that react to electric charge and generate light. The advantage of this technology is that it doesn’t generate as much heat as other light sources.

I’m just going to talk a little bit about the design process. I did this project a few years ago for another competition that was on human-powered devices for Core 77. I did a quick sketch to find what the best location on the shoe was for the light sources. The heel of the shoe is a good place for the light source to be so that if cars are coming from the back they can see you. I also found good places for the front and the sides of the shoes.

I also looked for the best location for the piezoelectrics. This would be the parts of the shoe that have the most impact zones with the floor. I passed from doing quick sketches to exploring the form in 3D using surface modeling tools.

It was also important to find a way for this to be an appealing object, which is part of our big contribution as designers. I did a bit of exploration on different ways of representing this and came up with final renderings of the shoe. The blue part on the sole is where the piezoelectric surfaces are located, and then the lemon-green areas are where the light sources are. When we touch the floor constantly with the blue part, the piezoelectrics generate electricity that is conducted through the sole to the electroluminescent polymers. After doing this project I found out that there is also electro-luminescent fabric that can be applied to these. The advantage of both the fabric and polymers is that they can be formed so the actual materials are the light source. That’s interesting because it’s the way nature does things. Instead of using batteries or any mechanics it’s the shoe that actually emits the energy.

Each part of the shoe can be separated. If an element is broken it can be replaced without having to replace the whole product. There can also be customizable uppers with different graphics. The idea is it is not only for exercise but is also a lifestyle product that can be worn at different times. Clubbing is an interesting application for that because of where the lights come from.

Next I did another experiment with the same design trying to evolve it by using the whole front stripe to locate the light source. I developed a website for BrightWalk and a logotype, so there’s a little bit of brand development. I am receiving a lot of calls from people that are interested in buying it, but I still don’t have a prototype. It received a very good response in the Core 77 competition as well as receiving a Red Dot award, and being a runner up in the Metropolis Next Generation Competition, and it has received a lot of press, which is very good.

Szenasy: When we were judging the competition everyone thought that this was already a product because there are those battery-run shoes. Are you approaching Nike or another small shoe manufacturer with this?

Villarreal: No, I actually haven’t done that much after the concept phase. I’d love to enter a prototyping phase now and see it really work. These technologies a couple of years ago were in the laboratory phase and some are starting to get to the market now. I have to put in more effort on prototyping it. I have been approached by some companies that are interested in development. I also found out that there are some companies trying to implement this technology for charging cell phones, iPods or other things because that’s a source of energy that we are generating all the time. It can be applied not just to generate light but to actually generate other uses of electricity.

Szenasy: How would the cell phone charging work?

Villarreal: You would store the energy somewhere in a wearable device and then you could charge your cell phone with the energy you produce when you walk.

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