April 20, 2017

Material Matters: ‘The Shoes of Tomorrow’, Today

You can always look back at previous generations’ expectations of the modern-era for a laugh. In dreaming up colonies on the moon, gigantic computers and a jetpack in every home, they tended to miss the mark just a little. The sneaker world may not offer quite the same level of amusement, but there are plenty of examples of how people just didn’t get it quite right. Nowadays, the over-the-top technical visions of yesteryear have given way to a world of sleek minimalism and, much to our disappointment, a distinct lack of electronic footwear.

The early days of computing had us believe that bigger was better – if it had more wires then it could move more info, and processing power was expected to be the key to the future. It was thought that everything would be electronic beyond the year 2000 – even sneakers. Perhaps one of the most recognisable manifestations of this cultural vision is the Nike Mag. During its conceptual development, the Mag was actually toned down from its first design, though it did retain a hint of the original idea in its name – an acronym for ‘Magnetic Anti-Gravity’. Sadly, there’s still no such thing as anti-gravity boots, but the power-lacing design depicted in Back to The Future Part II has finally been brought into being. Leaving the realm of fiction, we’ve seen a real world application of the tech in the form of its performance-based cousin, the Hyperadapt 1.0. Although this is a perfect case of yesterday’s imaginings becoming the reality of today, it’s a unique situation. Had it not been for the popularity of the film, it’s highly likely that they wouldn’t have gone to all that effort to realise the technology.

Nike Mag in Back to The Future Part II

Nike Mag in Back to The Future Part II

The adidas Micropacer was released in 1984, making it the first ever shoe to contain a rudimentary computer system. It had an advanced (for the time) microprocessor that was capable of some relatively mind-blowing computing, but it didn’t plug into anything else – not all that impressive to the mid-80s techno-hobbyist. PUMA took care of that a year later with their RS Computer Shoe. The shoe had some seriously hefty hardware built into the heel, which contained a chip that would measure your run. When you plugged it into a compatible computer (an Apple IIE, Commodore 64 or IBM PC) it would create handy graphs so you could track your athletic performance.

Nowadays, anything with wires seems antiquated. Shoes have been capable of wireless connectivity for more than a decade, since the introduction of Nike+iPod. The activity tracker was released in 2006 as a collaboration between the footwear and computing giants. You’d just pop a chip in your shoe, stick a receiver into your iPod, and the two could communicate wirelessly – easy as that! But alas, most fitness fanatics would much rather track their day with a wearable device, like a Fitbit, which can go beyond your run and give feedback on your quality of sleep and plenty more – resulting in a thoroughly comprehensive picture of health.

The electric dreams of the new millennium weren’t restricted to data collection and running playlists, however. The adidas_1 had self-adjusting cushioning that was way ahead of its time. A sensor in the heel would detect each footfall and activate an electric motor concealed inside the sole unit. The motor would then turn a screw, adjusting tension to a cable that would change the compression characteristics of the midsole. After three years of development, the shoe was released in the mid-2000s, but – believe it or not – it failed to revolutionise the footwear world. With so many moving parts being subject to the repeated abuse of impact, it’s hardly a surprise that the adidas_1 turned out to be a little unreliable.

Nike+iPod chip

Nike+iPod chip

While plenty of battery-powered sneakers have faded into memory, there are some new concepts with potential success that is yet to be decided. A brand called Wize&Ope began selling Hype8 Kicks in 2016, offering a fresh interpretation of electronic footwear. Looking beyond the questionable name, the shoes have a sleek design – reminiscent of Nike’s LD Zero – and a unique set of features. A showy light-up midsole syncs with your smartphone’s mapping software to indicate traffic signals – proving handy for nighttime cycling. They can also pulse to your tunes, helping to light up the dance floor when your moves fail to do so. One of the latest athletic attempts, the Altra IQ, can analyse your running style and feed real-time advice to your smartphone – minimising the likelihood of injury caused by poor technique.

Nike LD Zero

Nike LD Zero

Perhaps the future of the electronic shoe will see a bit of a role reversal – rather than the shoe needing power, what if the shoe could generate juice for other devices? Current technology can harvest the energy you generate while walking and store it for later. This can be done on impact or during the swinging motion of your foot, using a conductive liquid and a nanofilm-coated surface. The trouble with this tech is that you’d probably have to plug your device into your shoe to charge it. So, unless it’s powering something inside the shoe – a Wi-Fi hotspot, perhaps – it brings us around full circle to wires.

An energy harvesting sole unit

An energy harvesting sole unit

Then again, why not embrace electronic shoes simply for their pure novelty value? Shiftwear are working hard to develop a commercially available sneaker with a flexible display built into the side. That means you can beam an image from your smartphone directly onto your shoes – kind of pointless, but also kind of cool.

The future of the electronic shoe is uncertain – it’s hard to say whether they’ll move beyond kitsch gadgetry to life altering revolution. If we ever do get our hands on time-travelling hover boots, we promise to come back and let you know.

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 How Good is Too Good? Saucony GRID Technology and adidas Tubular.

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