It’s Alive! : Christophe Guberan’s Shape Shifting Active Shoes

Finding the right shoes. That’s all shoe lovers really want. Walking into a shoe store, slipping on the pair you’ve obsessed over for days and they fit perfectly. Unfortunately, the reality is that you’ll probably try on five to 10 different pairs and have to decide whether you value comfort or aesthetics more. But what if shoes adjusted to fit your feet instead? The ‘Active shoes’ by Christophe Guberan does just that.

Christopher Guberan [Image: Design Indaba]

Guberan is a Swiss industrial designer who has always been fascinated with the experimentation and observation of material, its interactions and how to reimagine its properties. It’s this ability to rethink traditional processes and create new materials for the industry that led him to collaborate with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 2014, where he currently works with its Self-Assembly Lab. Teaming up with fellow industrial designer, Carlo Clopath, and computer scientist and designer Skylar Tibbits (who also happens to be MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab director), they took on the challenge to create a product that would respond to specific stimuli and assemble itself. Aka, the minimal active shoes project.

Active Shoes Upper Fold [Image: Substance ÉTS / MIT / Self-Assembly Lab]

The goal of the active shoes it to contract around the feet, shrinking in size for the perfect fit. To achieve this, they 3D printed plastic lines of different shapes onto a 2D, stretched textile surface known as ‘active’. This would define the shoe’s shape once the 3Dprinted plastic lines interlock after being released from pressure. That way, they could continue to self-transform in accordance the wearer’s foot, and in response to stimuli such as heat or moisture, long after it had left the printer. As explained by the Self Assembly Lab on their website, “Material of varied layer thickness and property is printed onto stretched textiles then released after printing, allowing the shoe to jump into pre-programmed shapes. The combination of stretch fabric and printed patterns offers both flexibility and stability.” For 3D printing enthusiasts out there, they used the FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) process, invented by Stratasys.

[Film by: Emile Barret & Music: “Resound” by Lullatone]


Their next problem to tackle was making the active shoe production process efficient. In the beginning, the production cost and material required to completely 3D print the shoes made this an expensive venture. After the three went back to the drawing board, they decided to only partially 3D print the shoe to save on cost, time, labour and material. Instead they would use traditional materials such as rubber and leather for the base and build the upper with 3D material. The added bonus to this solution is the customization capabilities it brings. The MIT team want the final product to not only be tailor-made to each client, but to also meet the personal preferences and tastes of each wearer.

[Film by: Emile Barret & Music: “Resound” by Lullatone]


And that’s as far as the advanced technology goes. There isn’t any sensors, robotics or the usual bells and whistles that typically go into creating such footwear. By nixing heavy reliance on advanced tech, they demonstrated that interactive garments can still be made effectively with a production method that’s significantly less complex. As Tibbits mentioned in an interview with Creators Vice, “We can have active textiles that self-transform, but also make it efficient so that it could be feasible to produce these because it’s a minimal amount of time and material to get the textile highly active,” he says. “Whatever pattern, type, and thickness of the material you use, those become the geometric program, so that when you release the textile it jumps into shape based on what you printed. So, that’s how we can get the right shape and textures.”

Active Shoes Upper and Sole Shoe Folding [Image: Substance ÉTS / MIT / Self-Assembly Lab]

This project caught our eye for the simple fact that it challenges the limits of matter. It explores the possibility that textiles can be dynamic and receptive to their environment for enhanced performance. It goes further to prove that more efficiency doesn’t necessarily have to come with a higher price tag or fancy production processes. Christophe Guberan’s living textiles, that self-adapt, move, and transform, inspire the notion that 3D printed footwear could be a mass market product after all. Impressive as these active shoes may already be, the MIT team clarify that the design is still a work in progress. They are still undergoing research to find better ways of 3D printing the wearer-reactive shoes and to discover different ways to apply customization. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next; for the sake of the shoe industry’s advancement and because we’re really tired of trying on so many shoes!



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