Based between Portland and Dubai, phygital design studio Astral Labs is in the business of bridging gaps. Be they geographical, technological, or decidedly human, Astral was created to connect the dots between wants, needs and musts – regardless of how far apart they may seem at first.
In terms of the studio’s first offering, that means producing something with human comfort and aesthetics in mind when it comes to the finished product – as well as the pivotal issue of environmental impact in terms of the process and materials – but which, in doing so, is created through decidedly non-human means. In this case, state of the art 3D-printing.
All of which leads us to the Astral Labs Voyager 001-A: a mule-style shoe, created using the studio’s proprietary Lattice Structure, known as the A/MATRX – a system constructed from complex micro springs boasting “unique, mechanically distributed cushioning properties.”
It’s a system which, appropriately for both Astral Labs and the Voyager, taking the names of both into account, has been “engineered to capture the sensation of weightless gravity for unprecedented comfort.”
A partnership with HP – a name as synonymous with printing as it’s possible to imagine at this point – the Voyager 001-A is made in Barcelona, using HP’s industry-leading 3D-printing technology; specifically, its advanced Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) printer.
And, in terms of that process, the mule is created with what Astral Labs refers to as a “next-generation additive manufacturing processes,” making use of a system known as parametric algorithms to implement “Finite Element Analysis,” optimizing the Voyager’s final construction for essential elements of comfort and durability.
All of which, really, adds up to a shoe designed to be best possible version of itself in both form and function. It is, essentially, as much a shoe as it is the culmination of a swathe of research, development, and technological advances across multiple industries.
In terms of how the shoe is crafted – and in terms of what, exactly, the Voyager is crafted from – HP’s MJF technology is deployed here to fuse layers of fine TPU powder into complex forms; a future-facing way of creating footwear that not only reduces waste in the process – requiring just one polymer, with one smoothing post process, it uses only the amount of material it needs to exist – but also creates a finished product with a level of precision that would be impossible through any other method, thanks to the 3D environment.
All these technical aspects, however – the 3D-printing, the equations and algorithms – do not add up to a shoe created solely, or soullessly, by machine. For everything they do provide, those elements do not remove the humanity of the Voyager 001-A’s design feel.
While it’s true that the single-process production style may not feel artisanal in the way of a cut-and-sew project, the Astral Labs mule was nonetheless “obsessively crafted” by Earl Stewart – a world-leading name in the field of computational design, with an impressive list of credits that includes work with Nike ISPA and the recent Reebok x Botter 3D-printed shell sneakers.
Asked about how he protects the human element in such tech-first design, Stewart explains: “Back in the day I had the same questions. I adopted the Value Sensitive Design approach, which was a concept developed by Batya Firedman & Peter Kahn in response to the questions springing up around human-computer interactions and how we keep humanity at the centre of evolving technology. Under the VSD method with its 3 main phases of Conceptual, Empirical & Technological process, the design process keeps human needs at the centre of creative process.”
Still, though, as things move forward with such velocity, it only becomes more difficult and more imperative. “Technology within the design field is only going to get more disruptive,” Stewart says. “AI is shaking the industry up and Astral is folding this tech into our workflow. The VSD approach gives us a framework to keep human needs at the centre. As for the design of the Astral Voyager, this was driven by the empirical data I had on understanding foot comfort, understanding the technology of HP’s MJF printer to develop a lattice system that takes advantage of this process, and conceptually wanting to design an object that lives in its own space.”
The mule’s stylistic elements, too, nod toward a combination of progress and presence – of humanity’s constant search for better and the technology which gets us there. It’s in the name – Voyager 001-A being a reference to NASA’s 1977 space exploration project – and its in the design, too, in the “space-grey color-way” and in a shape which Astral Labs calls a “topographical texture of breathable perforations that nods to both the moon’s distinct surface and the smooth curves of NASA’s Explorer 1, the first American space satellite.”
Highlighted here in the astronomically-inclined video created by the FUTUREVVORLD Agency, the result – in more aesthetic and somewhat philosophical terms – is a shoe imbued with a sense of genuine thought and possibility; a kind of retro-futuristic spirit with its smooth contours and aerodynamic grates, that points at once to what might be someday in the not-so-distant future and what we once, in the not-so-distant past, imagined things might have been like today.
With a public release expect soon, retailing between $900 and $1200 USD, the Voyager launches exclusively at Bred in Abu Dhabi, you can find more information on the shoe at Astral Labs’ official website. For now, check out the video above and explore the brand’s first take on future of footwear.