Material Matters: Nike HyperAdapt
Date: November 23 2016
By: Adam Jane
Before we get too deep into the world of 3D billboards and anti-gravity leisure sports, what is it that’s had Nike obsessed with this concept for so long? The earliest shoes had simple rawhide strips that fastened them to the feet and ever since there have been various forms of leather or woven fibre to string through holes or hooks to hold things tight. They dipped out of fashion in place for buckles throughout the Middle Ages but the humble shoelace has remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years – so if it ain’t broke… Right?
The concept behind the technology dates all the way back to the Hollywood blockbuster Back to the Future II. After having been enlisted to come up with the film’s shoe of tomorrow, complete with visual effects that would border on fantastical, Nike designers Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker dreamt up the idea of a shoe that came to life. In their minds it was part utility, part fantasy – a shoe that would activate when the wearer slipped it on. In true sci-fi style the idea was a long way off – like the flying car or the robot maid, the self-lacing shoe was a promise that nobody quite knew how to realise. Regardless of the challenges, the concept captivated a generation of viewers. Nike knew they had to figure it out, and they’d stop at nothing to do so.
It may have seemed like a novel idea to viewers of the film, but for the minds at Nike the adaptive lacing system was a way to solve issues that had plagued athletes for decades – tying a shoe too tight will result in excess pressure at certain points during a stride, while tying it too loose will result in slipping. A fully autonomous adaptive lacing system would be able to adjust itself on the go, meaning that the fit of the shoe is precise at every moment. Nike would create synchronicity between body and footwear. While the movie’s Nike Mag remained the focal point for the public since the film’s debut, the Swoosh wanted to bring the concept to a mass consumer market as something more – a fully optimised sports shoe. Nike managed to bring the Mag to life in 2016, complete with power-laces, but the mission had grown into something more – going beyond movie memorabilia, the Hyperadaptis the next big step for athletes at every level.
Nike never lost the idea of an adaptive lacing system but the technology needed to mount tiny motors and an internal power supply took a long time to catch up to the vision. In true Swoosh style the quest for the future became more than a shoe design, but an exercise in mechanical and electrical engineering. Little did they realise, but this dream would take Nike 28 years of brainstorming, 11 years of tinkering and as Mark Parker, now CEO, recently put it ‘a considerable amount of R&D dollars.’ But if anyone knows that innovation doesn’t come cheap, it’s Nike.
Deep in a cavernous laboratory beneath Nike HQ lies the Innovation Kitchen – it’s unlike any kitchen you’ve seen, filled with experimental materials, high tech machinery and whimsical prototypes. Even for an employee at Beaverton this is a hard place to get into, the security clearance is top level, because this is where Nike keep their secrets. It’s down there, shrouded in secrecy where Tiffanny Beers, Senior Innovator, and her team have been tirelessly pushing into the future to create real life power laces. She was set no deadline and no budget but, nevertheless, had a mammoth task ahead of her.
The first thing to figure out was the engineering. The original prop from the film, had an external battery pack hidden out of sight, energy hungry lights and a lacing system that was actually controlled by crew members pulling wires from beneath a platform. It didn’t just have to be shrunk down to size, half of was still to be invented.
The initial hurdle was the motor. The lacing system would need to be pulled tight by a tiny motor that was both tough and quick. The team turned to medical suppliers, model train manufacturers and anyone else who produced small electronic motors. The first prototype, far from anything functional, was noisy, slow and unable to hold charge. It wasn’t until 2013 when technology had caught up with Nike’s vision that they found tiny, lightweight motor that could do the trick. The motor was engineered to wind in a cable system laced throughout the upper in response to a sensor under the heel, as well as tension sensors to cut it off, and can also be adjusted manually with buttons on the collar.
A rechargeable lithium-polymer battery was sourced to supply the juice, which uses a kind of plastic in place of traditional liquid electrolyte – leaving the power pack flexible and unable to leak. The light show is created using LEDs – small, energy efficient electroluminescent conductors.
The bulk of the electronics has been concealed in a cavity in the sole, something that was inspired by the Jordan 28. On top of that, new weaving and knitting technology which Nike have been steadily perfecting provides an ideal material to move with the wiring system. Once the framework was all in place, Hatfield and Parker got to work designing a shoe that would retain a kind of ageless authenticity while still communicating a futuristic grasp on technology to the consumer – the result enshrines the power laces atop a classic looking silhouette that’s woven from subtle yarn.
Together with the Sport Research Lab, the minutiae of fit and form were refined – finally the Nike Hyperadapt 1.0 was ready for production. With a battery life of two weeks, fully automatic lacing system and a bit of light up flair, the future of footwear has finally arrived. The next step in Nike’s vision for the technology is to create a shoe that can adjust itself on the move, to adapt as your foot bends and flexes and fit just right – you can bet the Innovation Kitchen is already cooking something up.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Dye and Colour, Ripstop Fabric and EVA Foam.