Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see someone skate-walk the halls of Detroit’s Huntington Place Convention Center. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening at Automate today, but I never thought $1,400 footwear was a possibility.
For the record, that person was Abe Paleta, principal mechanical and design integration engineer and the third employee at Shift Robotics. The company’s name belies its focus – for the time being, at least (who knows where future projects might take them). The product is a far cry from the hundreds of robotic arms lining the show floor.
The startup was clearly at the event as a representative of the Pittsburgh Consortium — effectively a small group of interesting companies based in that area that also includes drone inventory firm Gather AI. But there’s another interesting layer to its presence at the event: Shift is increasingly looking toward the enterprise market. It’s one of those unexpected potential market fits. People working in warehouses do a lot of walking. The company’s Moonwalker shoes have the potential to help people walk smarter, not harder.
Shift was founded in 2018 by Xunjie Zhang, who returned to study mechatronics at CMU after four years at Rolls-Royce. “He was trying to go to work and was often late,” says Plata. “He thought, ‘Well, I’ll buy a scooter so I won’t have to look for parking spots. And then, I’m about to get hit by a car. I have to use the sidewalk. Walking is too slow. We can make it faster. How can it be made? This is the origin of thought.
After years of development on what would become Moonwalkers, the company launched on Kickstarter last October. Despite having no marketing team to speak of, Shift still managed to have a viral hit on its hands, reaching its $95,000 goal within two days. Things slowed down a bit from there, but by the end of the campaign the company was able to raise up to $329,000.
In addition to built-in PR, the crowdfunding campaign allowed Shift the ability to determine that there was, in fact, some market for $1,400 semi-skating footwear. As the company expands and scales, it will be able to gradually bring that price down. Plata says Moonwalkers has shipped all backers, and now Shift is fulfilling its Kickstarter post-purchases. With the crowdfunding out of the way, the company plans to raise a Series A this year.
I followed Playta’s lead and took the Moonwalkers for a spin on the floor. There are a total of ten wheels in the shoes. There are four motorized two-wheel clusters and a pair of non-motorized wheels at the front. The thinking behind the latter is that the ball of the foot is used to activate the movement of the wheels – similar to roller skates/blades – so motoring them can present a potential hazard. The wheels themselves are made of polyurethane.
Pleta says that George Powell, founder/industry veteran of Powell-Peralta Skateboards, gave him a “crash course” on wheels via an email thread. However, his involvement with the company begins and ends there. “She’s not involved at all,” says Plata. “He said, ‘I want to be in skateboarding. It’s my world.'”
Moonwalkers are heavily focused on mobility, though there’s still fun to be had. They are capable of traveling up to seven miles an hour – or roughly 2.5x the standard human speed. Pleta says you can really pick up some speed on the airport runway, closer to 12 mph. They should also go through airport security with no problem.
Despite the name, moonwalkers are quite heavy at four pounds. It takes some time to get used to it. Your muscles will probably be a little sore after the first day. The weight is due to the drive trains and battery—Shift says you should get about six miles of range on a charge, though there are a bunch of different variables, including tilt.
Shoes themselves also get used to. Leave the Velcro straps on your shoes as you adjust. The wheels stay locked until you heel pivot the right shoe, turning the white light to green. From there, the operation is much like roller skating, only the shoes are doing most of the heavy lifting. I found myself accidentally stopping them at a few points in the middle, wobbling a bit in the process. Plata says that the company is constantly making changes to the algorithms, which will be available through firmware OTA updates.
Granted, I was skating half the convention center aisle and back. I am sure after 20 to 30 minutes I would have got a good grasp of things.
The road to the workplace is going to be an interesting one for the company. I compared it to the journey Magic Leap is currently on, turning from a $3,000 consumer headset to an enterprise one. There is clearly a lot of money to be made selling these things wholesale – although you have to jump through OSHA and other regulatory hoops.
“We’re making sense as we go,” says Plata. “So far in five years of development we have had zero injuries. None of our supporters or customers have been injured so far.