There’s a case to be made that the smart shoe was first popularized by the self-lacing Nike Mags that Marty McFly wore in the hit film “Back to the Future II” back in 1989.
Since then, the world has been disappointed by the delayed appearance of flying cars and hoverboards as seen in the movie—but not so much when it comes to the idea of a robotic sneaker. Nike has released multiple versions of a real Nike Mag, starting in 2011.
The smart shoe might be the only invention that “Back to the Future” predicted accurately. In 2019, four years after the movie’s fictional events took place, several brands have jumped on the trend, hoping to innovate the world’s first, mass-produced and widely accepted smart shoe.
The first major release of the year came in January when Nike dropped a new Adapt BB smart shoe that paired the functionality of the original button-operated Adapt BB with a new app. Through the app, users could adjust the fit of their shoe from their smartphones after stepping into the sneaker and going through its motor-operated fitting routine.
In April, the self-lacing Puma Fi training sneaker bowed as the brand’s inaugural entry into the smart shoe market, built on its new Fit Intelligence platform and made for workouts and light running.
“Tiny zeros and ones tell a micromotor to power a uniquely configured cable system that laces the shoe,” Puma said of the smart shoe. “All you have to do is swipe up or down on the Fi module. You can also control the lacing using a smartphone app.”
The Puma Fi also sports a breathable, sweat-fighting upper and an “industrial grade” fiber support system with a forefoot lockdown band to ensure a tight, technical fit. Puma’s entry is notable as it has a certain claim to the very idea of a smart shoe. In 1986, Puma released a computerized smart shoe called the Puma RS-Computer, which had a small computer embedded in the heel that resembled a digital calculator and could track running progress.
In 2016, Puma even introduced its own app-powered, self-lacing sneaker called the Autodisc, a few years before Nikes Adapt BB introduced the functionality.
Although not an official entry into the smart shoe pantheon, it seems Under Armour also made moves to include itself in 2019’s smart shoe showcase. In June, multiple outlets reported that Under Armour had filed applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for two sneaker features that were dead ringers for smart shoe capabilities.
One detailed a shoe that could link to a wearable and display blood pressure in order to optimize blood flow. The second application was similar, marking the brand’s interest in a separate blood pressure detection system. Both would hypothetically assist an athlete post-workout, giving trainers more insight into the status of their body as they recover—especially as it pertains to important mechanisms related to blood flow.
Not to be outdone, Nike released another version of the Adapt BB self-lacing technology in the form of the Nike Adapt Huarache in September. This style uses the same FlyEase fashioning system that is present in Nike’s FitAdapt footwear. However, the Adapt Huarache includes the ability to activate the closure with simple, voice-activated commands, making the entire experience hands-free.
Although Nike’s smart shoe appears to have several uses, including providing sorely needed features to people with disabilities, Droplabs’ EP01 sneaker took an entirely different approach. The EP01 packs “proprietary technology” into its midsole, turning an audio signal into a vibration that can be felt through the feet. Although the shoe will likely be used as a gaming sneaker, Droplabs said it also has the potential to be used with music and even meditation apps.
Sneakers weren’t the only place you could find “smart” technology in footwear in 2019. Insole brands also sought a way to bring technology to the footbed. French footwear tech firm, Digitsole, launched a smart insole called the “M-Cube” in January that it said could be used to detect Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by analyzing the wearer’s gait.
Additionally, MegaComfort’s Energysole insole, released Spring 2019, features activity sensors in a dual-layer insole to collect step data to be used to evaluate performance and health. MegaComfort said the addition of Energysole to footwear used in industrial spaces could improve both employee safety and engagement.