When Nike Adapt BB 'smart shoes' were announced, we must admit we groaned slightly and thought, "Oh great, another way to count steps." But this is something very different. More akin to what we think Samsung's SmartShoes will be like, they're aimed at pro athletes, but with a look and futuristic cutting edge that could see them rule the streets as well as sporting venues.
Why? Because as well as its technical excellence and usefulness to professional basketball players looking to improve their 'hang time', Nike Adapt BB is also a self-lacing trainer just like in Back to the Future!
Nike, it must be said, is at pains not to mention BttF, as this is meant to be a serious pair of shoes.
Adapt BB is all about a perfect, customised fit. It just happens to achieve that via a self-lacing shoe, like in Back to the Future. The system used is called FitAdapt, and it involves an app, a motor and wires that draw the shoe tight (or loose, if you prefer) around your foot.
This shoe is aimed squarely at basketball players, FitAdapt but could obviously make its way into any sports shoe, and also any more fash-forward shoe. In Nike language, 'the next step will be to bring FitAdapt to other sports and lifestyle products, each with unique demands for fit in different environments.'
To achieve a perfect and adaptable fit, Nike has replaced the traditional shoelace, which 'dates back to 3500BC,' according to Michael Donaghu, Nike’s VP of Innovation, with FitAdapt.
When you put on the Adapt BB, 'a custom motor and gear train senses the tension needed by the foot and adjusts accordingly to keep the foot snug.'
The precise snugness can be modified via Nike's Adapt app or the buttons in the midsole. At present it's possible to relax the fit 'during a time out', then have it pull tight around your foot as you resume hoop-dunking activities. Nike suggests that with further firmware updates it will be possible make further modifications to the fit, to suit different phases of a game.
The shoe is the 'most tested in Nike history', with thousands of hours of testing for resistance to impact, water and heat. Michael Donaghu, Nike’s VP of Innovation, is bullish about this melding of tech and footwear.
'Our long-term vision for innovation at Nike is a world in which intelligent products adapt at the speed of sport to improve an athlete’s performance,' he says. 'We’ve finally added firmware to footwear, letting us continuously improve the product you’ve already bought, responding as need be to changing preferences and environments.
'What do I mean? Imagine a cycle, where opting in creates data about your activity to inform personalized guidance from Nike. And as your performance improves, we can connect you to new product and services for your new goals — and the cycle continues.'
He says this will eventually lead to Nike offering 'real-time personalized training and guidance' via this new breed of connected shoe. It's not clear if this is a goal to be realised in the dim, distant future, or if it's built into Adapt BB but not 'turned on' yet. The key, ambiguous, phrase in Nike's press release is, 'Players can opt in to firmware updates for the FitAdapt technology as they become available, sharpening the precision of fit for players and providing new digital services over time.'
Nike has started with basketball because it feels that's where the tech will be most useful. Basketball players certainly tend to have the biggest feet and, so Nike says, 'Over the course of a basketball game, the foot can expand almost a half-size during play. A level of fit that feels comfortable at one point might feel constrictive just 24 minutes later.'
'We picked basketball as the first sport for Nike Adapt intentionally because of the demands that athletes put on their shoes,' confirms Eric Avar, Nike VP Creative Director of Innovation. 'During a normal basketball game the athlete’s foot changes and the ability to quickly change your fit by loosening your shoe to increase blood flow and then tighten again for performance is a key element that we believe will improve the athlete’s experience.'
Perhaps star product tester, Boston Celtics small forward Jayson Tatum, sums it up best, however: 'It's just cool.'
However, before we go too far back to the future, let's accept that at the moment, BB Adapt is 'only' a self-lacing shoe. It's actually quite surprising that, although Nike's high-tech (not Hi-Tec) new shoes are battery powered and festooned with electronics, the brand has so far resisted the urge to include any means of gathering movement and speed data and all that jazz.
Perhaps that's down to hared-won experience; the brand tried all that with Nike+, many moons ago. How long ago? Well, have a look on Nike+'s Wikipedia page and you'll find a reference to one especially choice feature: 'pre-recorded congratulations provided by Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Paula Radcliffe whenever a user achieves a personal best.' Ah, those were the days.