“I’m gonna offer you a fist bump,” Tinker Hatfield says, holding out his gloved right hand. He took a tumble off a motorized longboard days before, and while a collegiate pole-vaulting career and a lifetime of skiing taught the 66-year-old how to fall, the remote control in his paw stopped him from tucking his thumb in—and when said thumb met the street, the street won.
Hatfield popped it back into place while he was still skidding down the street, but thumbs are fragile, fickle things by design, so he needed something to hold it all in place while it healed. When you’re Nike’s VP of creative concepts and the most recognized sneaker designer of all time, full immobilization is off the table. “No casts,” he told the doctor. “I need to draw.”
Enter compromise in the form of the black neoprene glove: It allows him to hold a pencil or stylus without jeopardizing the ornate tape job underneath, or the delicate ulnar collateral ligament another layer down. All the protection and support he needs, none of the added bulk or weight that might get in the way. It’s a suspiciously apt parallel, given Hatfield’s career—and why we’re sitting here in the Innovation Kitchen, the most secretive wing inside the most secretive building on Nike’s sprawling campus in Beaverton, Oregon, on a cold December Monday morning.
“The Architect,” as Hatfield is known among sneakerheads, has churned out a closetful of iconic models since he joined the company in 1981. The Air Max One let people peer through a window in the midsole to see the internal cushioning; the Air Trainer 1, with its velcro strap over the forefoot, kicked off the “cross-training” craze in the mid-’80s. Other models simply became known by namesakes of the athletes who popularized them, like the Air Trainer SC (“Bo Jacksons”) or the Air Tech Challenge 2 (“Andre Agassis”). And of course, there were the Air Jordans. So many Jordans. Thirteen models of the basketball shoe in a row and a handful of others since, each with its own unmistakeable silhouette and fanbase.
But increasingly, Hatfield began stepping back from the table, becoming a godfather of sorts to Nike’s 700-person design corps. (It’s not like his designs have disappeared; every single one of the sneakers mentioned above could still be purchased in 2018, decades after they were initially released.) He doesn’t micromanage, but he does oversee—and the thing he’s most excited about having overseen these days is the sneaker that’s perhaps more like his glove than anything Nike has ever made.
You may remember that the company’s HyperAdapt 1.0, which it released in late 2016, was the first truly self-lacing shoe since Nike first dreamed up the feature for Back to the Future Part II more than 30 years prior. It was also $720, necessitated a kludgy manufacturing process, and was more of a proof of concept than a true performance sneaker. But as with any good 1.0 version, iteration has arrived: The Nike Adapt BB, a basketball sneaker the company announces today, is the first mass-scale deployment of the Fit Adapt system. It’s an engineering challenge wrapped in a swoosh, seeking to improve stability and prolong careers at the same time. It’s the first peek at an integrated ecosystem of smart footwear that will charge wirelessly, remember your preferences, and even analyze your athletic performance.
But most importantly, it fits like a glove.
From the very beginning, the HyperAdapt 1.0 was a test balloon. You could run in it, sure, but you weren’t about to take it out for a half-marathon. You could take it to the gym to play pickup ball, but it was heavier than your other sneakers—and cost at least $500 more. And Nike didn’t sink years into creating a self-lacing shoe just to release something that was good at a lot of things but great at none.
So how do you go from test balloon to warplane? You choose the sport where it’s needed most. And to do that, you consider the one that’s hardest on feet.
“We see tortured feet from athletes in all different sports,” says Hatfield. But basketball seems to be a particularly egregious form of torture—thanks in no small part to the fact that it requires gargantuan humans to jump and land on hardwood dozens, if not hundreds, of times per game. Jones fractures are common; Kobe Bryant famously suffered from excruciating plantar fasciitis. And then there’s the long-term effects. LeBron James’ toes look like they’re trying to crowd together for a selfie. When Shaquille O’Neal unveiled his piggies during a TNT broadcast a couple of years back, his co-workers seemed legitimately traumatized.
Even beyond trashing your feet, basketball simply asks a lot of sneakers. A good b-ball shoe has to support quick-cut lateral movements. It has to provide fore-aft traction so you can launch into a sprint without slipping. It has to accommodate a foot that might swell over the course of a game. And through all that, it has to lock the foot in place in order to avoid friction issues like hot spots and blisters.
Then there’s the fact that Nike has created signature kicks, and even brands, for most of the sports’ biggest icons. Jordan, Bryant, and James all boast ever-refreshing lines of shoes; so do future hall-of-famers Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That means the company has a lot of designers with a lot of experience—designers like Eric Avar, who’s responsible for most of Kobe’s signature shoes, and Ross Klein, a senior design director in Nike’s Innovation department.
Once Nike had gotten the HyperAdapt to a workable place, Avar and Klein started working on the Adapt BB as what Klein calls a “three-year-out” project. They knew a motor embedded in the footplate would need to cinch down a lacing system, and they knew … well, that was it. Everything else—how the lacing system worked, how the motor would withstand the impact of a 240-pound athlete landing on it, what materials the actual shoe would comprise—was a matter of experimentation.
So experiment they did. Over the course of 52 distinct “explorations,” including exhaustive wear-testing of each, the team worked through various lacing materials and placements in order to find one ideal. The winner was a two-zone system: When you press a button on the shoe’s midsole or on your Adapt app (more on that later), a thin braided line akin to parachute cord tightens over your instep at the shoe’s “eyestay,” as well as around the back of the shoe’s collar behind your ankle, to keep everything secure. (Despite decades of tradition, there’s little evidence to suggest that high-top sneakers provide any ankle protection, and over the past decade or so mid- and low-cut sneakers have largely replaced them on NBA courts.)
But snugness is only part of it. What the parachute cord cinches together is an internal layer of a material that Nike has used in soccer cleats, but with the Adapt BB makes its first appearance in a basketball shoe. Quadfit, as the company calls it, is a textile that’s knitted into a mesh of what looks like overlapping diamonds; by being able to give along four axis rather than two, the mesh supports against the horizontal shear forces that can come from sudden changes of direction. (The visible upper of the the shoe is a sock-like layer of Flyknit—a material used in many Nike running and basketball shoes—stretched over the Quadfit mesh.)
Then again, all the parachute cord and Quadfit in Beaverton doesn’t do much if it doesn’t adjust properly to your foot. Which is why, while the designers and material scientists were dialing in the recognizably basketball-shoe-ish parts of the basketball shoe, a 50-person team of engineers was trying to fit the power of an NBA star’s hands into a tiny, indestructible Bluetooth module about half the size of a playing card.
Indulge me in a tautology for a moment: Every sneaker Nike has ever made is a sneaker. And yes, obviously the Adapt BB is a sneaker, but the company really considers it a communications device—a device whose brain, according to senior director of engineering Jordan Rice, is “somewhere between a high-end Fitbit and an Apple Watch.”
The prospect of building that brain was enough to entice Rice back to Nike from a 22-month sabbatical at a Boston startup. It was enough that he reached back to his coworker there, Narissa Chang, to come to Nike to work on the project as lead mechanical engineer. And it was enough that they and their coworkers spent three years trying to figure out how to take the lacing motor from the HyperAdapt 1.0 and make it smaller, lighter, stronger, and—crucially—easier to make.
Every HyperAdapt 1.0 might have tightened around your foot automatically, but the manufacturing process was anything but: The shoes got put together not in a footwear factory, like any other sneaker, but in the electronics factory where the lacing engine, in all its first-gen finickiness, was built. In other words, Nike had to train electronics workers how to build a shoe. That wouldn’t fly for a mass-production sneaker, so part of what Rice and his team had to contend with was streamlining the logistics along with the lacing engine itself.
The result is something that, by design, may always be invisible to the shoe’s wearer. Under the insole and tucked flush into a cavity is the 40-by-50-millimeter casing; inside that is the magic. There’s a three-axis gyroscope and an accelerometer to match; a capacitive copper layer to register foot force; a Bluetooth sensor; a 505-mAh battery that can last between 10 and 20 days and charge wirelessly (just put your shoes on a plugged in Qi-compatible charging mat and they’ll be ready in three hours); and of course a motor. In this case, a motor that’s capable of exerting 240 newton-meters of force—enough to lift a 30-pound weight, and more than enough to tighten the sneaker all the way to tourniquet territory.
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All told, it’s less than two ounces, light enough to keep the Adapt BB squarely in serviceable weight range: a size nine comes in at exactly a pound, lighter than some LeBron models. And the lacing engine is completely sealed to be both waterproof and dust-proof, a must for any sensitive instrument exposed to locker rooms or sweat-drenched socks. (Also a must for easy assembly; when the lacing engine arrives at the footwear factory, all workers need to do is thread the parachute cord through a recessed spool and place it in the footbed.) It’s been tumble-tested and wear-tested, subjected to robots that Rice says “basically simulate LeBron jacking up and down on it tens of thousands of times.”
“Our goal,” says Narissa Chang, “is to make sure our device outlasts the life of the shoe—because then we know it’s still able to perform even in the harshest conditions.”
The way it performs today, though, may differ slightly from the way it performs in the future. After all, if you just want to cinch your shoe tight, you don’t need Bluetooth. Or inertial motion sensors that can tell how the shoe is oriented, or even moving in space. Marty McFly’s Air Mags in Back to the Future Part II may have looked like the future, but they weren’t getting over-the-air firmware updates. Yet, all of that is part of the Adapt BB on day one—and even if it’s not taking advantage of all that from the jump, the point is that it can.
How does it feel, though? That’s the question, right? Thankfully, Ross Klein has a pair with him, so after he lays out the sketches and mockups detailing the development of the Adapt BB, he hands over a final production sample. (While the average NBA shoe size is nearly 15, I clock in at a sample-friendly size nine.) Doubly thankfully, we’re already on a court. Situated on an upper floor of the Bo Jackson Fitness Center and ringed by huge windows looking out over Nike’s campus, it’s one of the most picturesque places imaginable to play indoor ball. Or, in my case, muddle through a series of jabless jab steps and very un-wet jumpers.
But before my demonstration of how not to play basketball, there’s the matter of putting the shoe on. Which, frankly, is tougher than I expected. There’s nothing to loosen by hand, so I rely on a small grip on the back of the shoe to get purchase while I wiggle my toes in. The capacitive sensor clocks the pressure of my foot and engages the motor. Back in 2016, my colleague Scott Eden described the HyperAdapt 1.0’s sound as “the noise you might make if you were doing the robot”; the Adapt BB’s, with its muted purr-whir that rises a half-step, is more like a baby Transformer waking up.