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Nike Adapt BB First Thoughts: Beyond shoelaces

On January 15, 2019, Nike grabbed the shoe world’s attention with the launch of their new Nike Adapt BB. After 2016’s Nike HyperAdapt, it’s their second official product to feature a technologically advanced self-lacing system. This is the power self-lacing technology whose humble beginnings trace inspiration from Marty McFly in 1989’s “Back to the Future II”. In fact, Nike paid homage to the movie by releasing a highly exclusive run of the McFly inspired Nike Air MAG back in 2015.


While those were not a commercial release and ran for thousands of dollars on the resale market, they signaled that Nike was willing to experiment and invest in the possibility of making power laces a commercial reality. As a professional basketball player but also someone deeply interested in design and tech innovation, I was particularly captivated by this Adapt BB announcement. In this post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the product and why I think Nike has its sights on much more than just laces.


PICTURE THIS


You’re what one might call a serious basketball player. How do you define serious you ask? Let’s say serious enough to spend $350 on a pair of hoop shoes. You have some functional and performance standards for what you put on your feet. Basically, you’re not the guy at the community rec center playing pick-up in an ankle shatteringly low pair of cross trainers.

So you’re thinking about giving the new Nike Adapt BB a try. You saw the teasers and the ads blasted across social media. You even saw the on-court debut by NBA players like Jason Tatum. Chances are you probably already have some pretty strong assumptions about the product and user experience. Certainly there are some “why’s” and “what if’s” ballooning in your mind. Let’s quickly examine three key gut reactions regarding function, cost and user experience.


JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS


The first and biggest question is likely why the hell someone needs self-lacing shoes. The footwear is being touted for its lacing technology, not its cushioning, weight or even traction. Lacing is the one function on a shoe (besides how it looks to some extent) that the user has control over. While you expect these other functional features to improve, there seems to be marginal returns to developing self-lacing. At the end of the day, you can always just kneel down and adjust your laces yourself.


So sure it sounds like a cool functional advance, but how do you justify the cost? Isn’t it all just a bit gimmicky? You are spending $350 after all. You’re a serious hooper, but we didn’t necessarily say you ARE Jason Tatum getting paid millions of dollars and likely getting the shoes for free. There needs to be some qualitative benefits to justify the expense. That’s especially the case if you think you can get more shoe for the same price, or the same experience for less money and a bit more manual shoe tying. At the moment it seems you will be paying more to in fact have to do more.


The shoes have a damn motor and mobile app. And that motor doesn’t run on kinetic energy captured from your body movement or foot odor for that matter. Like most of our electronics, it runs on a battery. Surprise, that battery needs to be charged. And a mobile app just for tying my shoes? Spare me. Once upon a time your biggest worry as a hooper was forgetting your shoes before a game or some catastrophic failure where your sole flies off or shoelace breaks. All are relatively low risk likelihood events. The marriage of new tech with the hardware (the shoe in this case) creates a more complicated experience filled with more variables. What is the likelihood you forget to charge your shoes? Do you really need your phone available just wear your kicks?


SOME CONTEXT


This brings me to reexamining the above three aspects in the context of what we know right now. As I think about this product from the mind of a pro basketball player and an aspiring designer, it is abundantly clear to me that Nike is on to something much bigger than the “cool” factor of self-tying laces.


LEVERAGING SOLUTIONS AND MARKETING


Nike knows you are more than capable of tying your own shoes. They know you probably do it pretty well and with satisfactory results. But they also know that there is a real user problem ripe to be solved. Athletes, particularly basketball players, do experience fit issues during games. As Nike notes, the athlete’s foot can expand almost a size during action. This leads to the footwear stretching and the need to tighten the laces to re-secure the foot.


Personally, I experience this every game. I find myself in timeouts racing to untie and retie my shoes all the while trying to watch the coach and whatever play he’s drawing on the clipboard. Sure I make due and it’s an inconvenience I, like most athletes, have learned to play with. But it is something I’ve thought about and something that has influenced my game-shoe decisions. In fact, one of my favorite shoes to play in was the Nike Lebron Soldier 11 for this reason. I could easily lock my foot down with a few easy-access straps.


The important thing here is that Nike not only acknowledges this problem facing a subset of its customers, but they also understand how to leverage that problem into a technology--a solution-- that can help many many more. Think elderly people or those with physical disabilities that might have trouble bending over and fiddling with shoe laces. You could even think of use cases for children. By marketing the solution to some that have very specific needs (tight, lockdown fit), Nike can solve a smaller, but more universal problem (tying shoelaces) at scale for many more.


ECONOMIES OF SCALE


And scale is how the intimidating $350 price point is lowered. Let’s pause for a moment. The 2015 Nike Air MAGs are selling for as much as $25,000 on resale websites. They were a highly exclusive release and certainly the price is reflective of much more than the interesting lacing technology. Still, for the sake of understanding scale, this is worth noting even if the price were half or a quarter of that. Next, look at the HyperAdapt 1.0 that released in 2016. That shoe was much more widely commercially available and had a pricetag of $720. With scale comes both price and tech improvements. The designers at Nike understand this. Nike design legend Tinker Hatfield said this about the new product in an interview with the blog Nicekicks:


“It’s like phones and other technical innovations that are more expensive when they first come out. The first one was $720, and it’s not as good of a playing shoe as this (Nike Adapt BB). The more we keep engineering and re-building these motors, they shrink down, and we can put them into more sizes and fit women better, and maybe kids too. Also, we could retro-fit other shoes with this technology. The more of these you make, the less expensive they get. You could play that out, and at some point, the products are going to be far less expensive, and they’re going to be expected too, by the way.”


So while at the moment the shoe might be prohibitively close to too expensive, the end goal is to get the technology as widespread and cheap as, well, shoelaces.


The last point I’ll make on the costs front is that a majority of my own colleagues and fellow hoopers already have large shoe budgets. Afterall, shoes are a big part of our job. Even for those not being paid to put a ball in a basket, sneakers command a culture of their own and the people who are a part of it are willing to spend. My thought is if you’re willing to spend resale prices for retros with old technology, I don’t see what’s wrong with spending resale prices for new shoes on the cutting edge--especially if you’re concerned about performance.


DISGUISING DISRUPTION


Perhaps the biggest concern for the Adapt BB is its disruption to the age old user experience with shoes. Earlier I mentioned the integration of motors, phones, charging and mobile applications into the experience mix. This all sounds a bit intimidating when you consider the old process of just grabbing a pair out of your closet, lacing up and going on your way. The reality is that Nike has smoothly integrated these new variables into the old process and experience so that overall, it appears little changed. They’ve done this in a few ways.


Nike and the tech world prepped us for the software and sportswear convergence years ago. Remember the Nike Fuel Band or even Nike Run+? These were some of the first products from a major sportswear company that made us interface with mobile apps and the potential for big data in the sports space. But Nike certainly isn’t the only one; there’s a long list of other fitness products that have furthered this effort over the years.


Pairing your phone with you watch, or fitness tracker, or shoes is not a foreign idea. We’ve done it before. Perhaps the biggest inconvenience here is the upfront time cost of setting things up. The initial hang up with the Nike Adapt BB announcement was more the thought of having to use your phone each time you wanted to tie or untie your shoes. If this seemed ridiculous, well, it is. While it’s an option, the phone and app are not necessary every time you want to put on or take off your shoes. The technology works manually independent of the phone. Don’t worry, you’re not going to have to explain to your coach why you’re bringing your smartphone to the bench during games.


And what about charging? Whenever I think batteries, technology, and hardware, my brain defaults to my experience with smartphones. We dread the thought of “Low Battery” alerts popping up before we make it to dinner, so we pack chargers, cables and portable battery packs. We don’t want this experience with our shoes. For now, it appears Nike avoids this tragedy. According to their website, the batteries last 14 to 20 days on a full 4 hour charge. I think remembering to charge once every 2 to 3 weeks is hardly disruptive to the day to day shoe experience. Even better yet, the shoes charge wirelessly with a mat.


THE BIGGER PICTURE


So you may be thinking, all of this just so you don’t have to kneel down and tie your shoes every once in a while? Well, for now, yes. In my opinion, this will be a product for the early adopters. But I think as these products scale, the future outlines so much more for Nike and the sportswear industry. I end this post by looking forward beyond the Nike Adapt BB to the future of footwear as a whole.


THERE IS STILL A LONG WAY TO GO


Historically shoes have served a very clear, fundamental role. In the most basic form, they function to protect your feet. More recently, that role has expanded in step with advances in biomechanics, materials engineering and technology. Shoes are specialized and we expect them to not only protect our feet, but to look good, feel good, and help us perform well.


There are two important question to ask here. How measurable have those benefits been? And with all the advances up to this point, has the experience changed all that much? At best, these additional functions we expect from shoes are subjective. For that reason, the overall experience with shoes is little changed. And yes, that will likely include the introduction of the Nike Adapt BB. You go to the store and perform some personal weighting between aesthetic, comfort, and cost. If uncertain, you probably do some research or ask a salesperson for some cost benefit analysis with regard to the technology in the shoe.


But ultimately it’s almost impossible to isolate the causal performance improvements of trying new footwear. I don’t know how much trying a pair of new shoes contributed to how fast I ran or how high I jumped. I certainly don’t know how much they contributed to the number of points I scored or how many rebounds I grabbed. We trust the people in the R&D labs and marketing offices to convince us of these stories.


For that reason, the way we interface with shoes hasn’t changed all that much despite the wide range of advances. Ultimately we’re constantly “trying out” shoes. We remember how one shoe felt, probably conjure some biased opinion of how it helped us perform, but the on the other side, the shoe remembers nothing about us. So maybe we try the next year’s model or a different line or brand all together in hopes of another temporary "right" match.


LOOKING FORWARD


But what if the shoe did remember? What if you never had to change shoes? What if you never had to experiment with different fits or never had to worry about a shoe that felt amazing being discontinued? I think the future of footwear for which Nike has a headstart, asks not how you will adjust to a shoe, but instead how a shoe will adjust to you. Nike’s head of innovation Michael Donaghu hints at this future when he says about the Adapt BB launch, “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.”


This is done through data. I think Nike is interested in exploring how to detach--in effect isolate--the shoe experience from the physical shoe itself. If this information can be intelligently captured and stored in the cloud, there is no reason you cannot always have YOUR perfect shoe (so long as there is hardware and technology that can interpret the info).


As products scale and technology becomes cheaper, I think the future will see the seamless integration of improved software and more sensors into the shoe experience. I think new data points will continue to fold into a larger comprehensive athletic/health profile.


SOME FINAL THOUGHTS


As a professional basketball player, this prospect sounds exciting. I imagine a continuous shoe experience afforded by data. It’s an experience that isn’t necessarily interrupted by physically changing between different shoe hardware. If anything it just gets smarter the more you switch. And while I’ll certainly be retired from the pros before this becomes a reality, it does inspire some larger questions not just about footwear, but more largely the role of data and tech in clothing and fashion industries. Does the fast pace of tech innovation marry well with the high churn of styles and trends? In the case of advances like self-lacing systems, will we want to retain manual failsafes like shoelaces in the event technology malfunctions?


In a future where the shoe adapts to you by leveraging data, perhaps the easiest question for the shopper will be a very simple one; which shoes look best? We won’t depend on the stories woven by R&D departments and marketing teams. The lab will be on your foot and the story will be in the info it collects. Worry about what looks good. The shoe will take care of everything else. The more difficult question is a far more expensive one. To which brand ecosystem do you commit your data?


We’re still down the road from having to answer these questions, but I think they’re good ones to start contemplating. For now we can concentrate on asking how much we’re willing to pay to not tie our shoes. The Nike Adapt BB is an exciting display of technological advances, but ultimately a smaller step towards much more disruptive products in the future.


On an ending note, I realize that the Nike Adapt BB has not yet officially released. I have not had the opportunity to test the product out. I write this purely inspired by the intersection of my interests in tech, design and athletics. This is not a product endorsement, ad or contribution to a marketing campaign. It’s just a few thoughts to say that the nerd in me wants to try this new shoe out just as much as the pro basketball player in me. Thank for taking the time to read. I’m interested to hear your own thoughts.

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