Monday, February 10, 2014

The Glow Project

When I first saw these shoes online, it didn't take long for me to use the Big Gay Cruise as an excuse to justify building a pair of my own. This was still way before we knew there was going to be a "Glow Party" on the schedule. That was just a lucky accident.

I carefully read the instructions and then ordered the parts. But I already knew I didn't want to make the same shoes exactly. For one thing, I didn't want exposed wires and electronics on my finished product. When not turned on, I wanted them to look like relatively normal shoes.

For another, the original glow pattern and color scheme was purposely designed to mimic flames. This is stated in the code comments:
// The code below uses a blackbody palette, which fades from white to
// yellow to red to black. The goal here was specifically a "walking
// on fire" aesthetic, so the usual ostentatious rainbow of hues
// seen in most LED projects is purposefully skipped in favor of a
// more plain effect.
While "flaming" sounds good in theory, this subdued effect wouldn't do at all for a gay cruise. I programmed in some ostentation.

Finding the right shoes took a while. I needed some sort of white-soled shoes with room to tuck the microcontroller and batteries that also weren't butt-ugly. I finally found these Levi's shoes at Macy's. Not only could the high-top sides be rolled down and zipped to conceal the circuitry, they were on sale for less than $40.

I purchased the LED light strips, micro-controller and other parts from the awesome Adafruit Industries, the same company that designed the original Firewalkers. The first change was to see if I could get the same program and effects to work on their smaller "Gemma" micro-controller rather than the larger "Flora" which they used. I really wanted everything to fit under the folded down high-top flap.

After fiddling with this tiny controller for a while, it was working even better than I hoped. Then I had to experiment with about twenty different versions of the pressure sensor. The sensors shown in the instructions worked fine on the bench, but not so well once I put them in the shoes. In keeping with my desire to keep the shoes looking "normal", I wanted to tuck the sensor under the insole. But the pressure of the foam insole alone was enough to keep the sensor triggered. I had to make a more resilient sensor which would still provide a workable analog range to varying amounts of foot pressure.

Once these details were sussed out, it was time to put it all together. I couldn't find the exact glue that was recommended by Adafruit, but found some LocTite Plastic glue that worked well. I'm a klutz when it comes to gluing and even taking extra precautions, still managed to glue the shoe to my hands. It took several days before my iPhone 5s recognized my fingerprints again.

This whole time – about two weeks of my night and weekend free time – JB looked on with befuddled semi-disinterest. This turned to thinly veiled rage when I accidentally scorched the countertop with my soldering iron. But when I was finally finished, I asked him to give the shoes a test drive. (That's JB in the video below.) I knew right then I was going to have to make a second pair. His pair only took one week to build and turned out even better than mine.

All-in-all, I'm extremely happy with the end results and can't wait to wear them at the Glow Party. That's assuming I can get both pair through airport security.


  1. wow. shoes that need an amp meter. i have no words.

    1. Because it's not the volts that'll kill ya...

    2. I was hoping more for "wow, shoes that have a USB port..." :-)

    3. fuck, i failed again - and in commenting duties, no less. hehehe...I said "duties".