Sneaker Plugs: The Evolution of Electronics in Sneakers
When the world first saw Marty McFly sporting self-lacing Nike Air Mags back in 1989, the notion of combining electronics and sneakers was pretty much reserved for science fiction. Fast-forward to 2019, and the self-lacing sneaker concept is, frankly, so last decade.
We know footwear technology has come a long way, but what have designers done to integrate the ongoing electronic advancement with consumer sneakers? The answer: a lot, but at the same time, not very much.
The majority of sneakers we cop are still free of any electronic components, but that’s not to say the brands haven’t tried. Here’s a look back at the best (and worst) sneaker gadgets and gimmicks we’ve seen over the years.
In the 80s
The technical progression of sneakers snowballed during the 70s and 80s, as manufacturers called on the help of podiatrists in their pursuit of innovation. Sneakers were going high-tech and, slowly but surely, more high fashion.
Sneakers got comfier, bouncier, lighter, and more accessible as disposable incomes increased. Analogously, analogue began making way for digital, as the development and mass production of electronic goods skyrocketed. The coming together of the two was a given.
The release of 1989’s Back to the Future II may have foreshadowed the sneakers of today, but it was adidas who gave us the first notable computer-infused sneaker five-years prior. The adidas Micropacer had a futuristic space-age look packed with an ‘advanced’ microprocessor, which collected data on everything from distance travelled to calories burned. Look, it certainly wasn’t ‘Magnetic Anti-Gravity’, but considering digital wristwatches were still considered ‘technologically advanced’ at the time, you’ve got to hand it to the Three Stripes for having the ticker to gamble on the design.
Just over year later in ‘86, PUMA did their best to out-tech rival adidas by releasing their very own computer-infused gizmo, unveiling a sneaker literally called the RS Computer. The chunky computer-chipped heel unit would’ve fit right into today’s rotations (so much so, PUMA actually re-released it this last year), but this oversized add-on actually went for function over form. Much like a Fitbit on your feet – sort of – the chip measured data as you ran, and also allowed you to plug into a computer to analyse your performance data. All you needed besides the sneakers was an Apple IIE, Commodore 64, or IBM PC (and probably a lot of cash).
Neon Lights and the 90s
After the innovations of the 80s, the next decade promised plenty of progression for electronics in sneakers. Bizarrely, the quirky concepts and chipped-out creps began to dry up as the NBA phenomenon swept across TV screens and sports bars worldwide.
During the early 90s, flexing a pair of basketball sneakers was a sign of status. And while most sneakerheads loved the Pump and adored Air, it was another piece of tech that dominated sales among the under-15s: LED lights.
Compared to the data-collecting sneakers of the 80s, this technology was pretty archaic. However, if you were a kid, you didn’t care. You simply had to have a pair if you were any chance of being one of the ‘cool kids’ – and if you didn’t, that pompous rich kid with the L.A. Lights and Gameboy was pretty quick to call you out. If your shoes weren’t lit, you weren’t s***.
Skechers founder by Robert Greenberg was the man responsible for the brand L.A. Gear, the company behind the ubiquitous L.A. Lights sneakers that lit up school hallways of the 90s. Retailing for around $50, more than five million pairs of L.A. Lights were sold in 1992 alone.
LED mania began to flicker as we approached the turn of the century, and the switch was pretty much flicked off completely when consumers realised the sneakers were poison – quite literally. Parents were quick to turn off the brand when they found out they were strapping toxic mercury (used in the electronics) to their kids’ feet. In fact, the state of Minnesota even went so far as to ban sales and distribution, as well as forced L.A. Gear to pay $70,000 in disposal costs and set-up a mail-in recycling service.
Unfortunately, the rest of the decade’s electronic sneaker advancements proved pretty dim. Perhaps electronics and sneakers weren’t meant to interconnect after all?
Brands went from trigger-shy to tech-crazy post-2000 – it’s like they were making up for lost time. The big players shot their shot, but there were plenty of misses along the way. The concepts were ambitious, but the majority left us wondering ‘why?’
Micro-sized motors were the order of the decade, with Reebok’s Pump 2.0 kicking things off in 2004. Building on the popular Pump technology, this laceless sneaker introduced a self-pumping function. The benefits of pumping were debatable to say the least, and the sneaker failed to win the hearts of performance footwear enthusiasts. Go figure!
Next, it was Team Trefoil’s turn with the minimally dubbed adidas_1 and adidas_1 Basketball. It may have had a simple name, but the electronics were far from it. The running shoe featured a microprocessor in the midsole with a motor-adjusted heel cushioning insert, which worked on the fly to make the midsole firmer or softer depending on conditions and impact. It was a pretty cool idea in theory but, unsurprisingly, the motor struggled with durability issues. Probably not worth the cop when you’re paying $250.
The adidas tech may have been fancy, but trust the Swoosh to come through with probably the most functional electronic sneaker development of the era: Nike+. Teaming up with Apple (duh), Nike introduced the function in the modest Zoom Moire runner, which allowed runners to sync up to their iPods or iPhones to track mileage, speed, and other pavement-pounding stats. It was 80s data-collecting creps on smartphone steroids – and it actually made sense.
What Now? Adapt or Die?
Complaining about technology has become the mother of all first-world problems. Whether it’s not being able to connect to the Wi-Fi, or knowing your shiny new iPhone will probably be a brick in a few years time, technological advancement is not without its grievances.
Fortunately for us, new-age tech has made self-lacing sneakers available to the masses – at least somewhat. Originally retailing for $720, the game-changing Nike Hyperadapt is now a feasible cop at less than half the OG price. Even 2019’s Adapt BB hit the market at a comparably affordable $350. The self-lacing motors may put a strangle on your toes, but they won’t choke your wallet.
But what do sneakerheads really want? Do we need our sneakers to conform to our feet on the fly, or tell us the weather? Probably not. Look to the retail shelves and release calendars, and you’ll still find that most sneakers are free of any microchips, motors or screens. Maybe brands have finally realised that sneakers should be worn, not wired.
Sure, that hasn’t stopped Nike from charging up the Cactus Plant Flea Market x VaporMax, or Balenciaga adding LEDs to the Track. However, as long as it looks good and feels good, that’s all we really want at the end of the day.
Maybe until Magnetic Anti-Gravity comes along, anyways.