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Electrical Engineers Designed This Shoe and That’s How It Should Be

February 20, 2019 by Lianne Frith

Wearable technology is nothing new. Smart devices such as watches and glasses have become commonplace, giving us convenient access to all their features. In the same way that smartphones have untethered us from our desktops, smartwatches have released us from our phones.

Meanwhile, other products such as smart bands and fitness trackers have also hit the mainstream, enabling us to track and enhance our performance. The next step, then, is obvious: smart clothing that is one with our bodies.

Nike has, perhaps expectedly, risen to the challenge with the beginning of this year seeing the unveiling of its new sneaker, the Adapt BB.

The Adapt BB is a smart, self-lacing shoe that is set to make great strides in the basketball arena. Nike couldn’t do it with a team of great product designers alone though; the tech needed to be powerful and lightweight. This is when electrical engineers stepped in.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why the Adapt BB Needed Electrical Engineers

Following the release of Nike’s HyperAdapt 1.0 in 2016, the company needed to prove more than the concept itself—its next iteration needed to be a true performance sneaker: smart, light, and perfectly fitted.

The sneaker was targeted towards basketball players, immensely challenging the technology behind it. To compete in the market, it needed to support quick-cut lateral movements, provide fore-aft traction, and grip the foot in the right place so as to avoid friction problems.

The initial team working on the sneaker knew that it needed a motor embedded in the foot to work the lacing system but that was about it, this is where the engineers stepped in. The designers and material scientists focused on the more shoe-ish features while a 50-person team of engineers worked on how to put the technology from the HyperAdapt 1.0 into a tiny indestructible Bluetooth module.

The technology is hidden under the insole in a 40-by-50-millimetre casing, keeping it protected from water and dust. It weighs less than two ounces, making it within an accepted weight range for professional sport. The key components are:

  • Three-axis gyroscope and accelerator
  • Capacitive copper layer to register foot force
  • A Bluetooth sensor
  • 505-mAh QI-compatible wirelessly rechargeable battery
  • A motor capable of exerting 240 Newton-meters of force

The end result is a sneaker that places control in the hands of its wearer. Luminescent buttons on the side of the shoe or within the accompanying Nike Adapt app can be used to tweak the shoe’s fit, and a thin parachute cord tightens both over the instep and behind the ankle.

Although the fit can be somewhat tight, it is designed to make the shoe feel like it's part of the foot itself, giving superior support where it’s needed most. What’s more, you can save settings for any situation, meaning it always fits like a glove.

The Adapt BB is the first mass-scale deployment of the Fit Adapt system, an engineering challenge wrapped in scientifically manufactured fabric aiming to improve stability and prolong careers. Interestingly, it is an electronics factory where the shoe is made rather than a textiles factory.

The manufacturing process has had to adapt, streamlining logistics to allow for mass-production. Now, the lacing engine is sent to a textiles factory where workers simply thread the parachute cord through a recessed spool and place it in the footbed. Without the minds behind the technology, the sneaker would still be nothing more than a sci-fi fantasy.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Where Can Electronics Take Nike?

For the time being, Adapt BB is going to remain targeted towards professional athletes—its price tag and design aren’t suitable for widespread commercial sale.

As the Adapt Fit technology is applied to other sports and shoes, however, the price may fall, particularly as the technology and lacing engine behind it become further optimised and improved.

The exciting part is that Adapt BB is far more than its boring old sneaker predecessors, it's a communications device, somewhere between a high-end Fitbit and an Apple Watch according to senior director of engineering Jordan Rice.

The communications aspect means that information can flow seamlessly between the sneaker, the app, and other wearable technology, with the end-user constantly being fed information about performance. This facilitates instant action and enables athletes to make changes as and when necessary for optimum performance.

Imagine the scenario where, during a game, an athlete’s feet begin to swell up. The Adapt Fit technology will immediately sense a change in blood pressure and automatically loosen without any intervention from the athlete. With this, it appears that Adapt Fit has the potential to become a natural extension of the human body, working in synergy with the operator’s point-in-time needs.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What Other Smart Clothing is on the Market?

Although smart clothing is yet to hit the mainstream, more and more companies are working with the concept of smart and connected garments. Unlike today’s wearables, connected garments aim to be inconspicuous, yet as close to the body as possible in order to understand and respond to its minute workings.

These are some of the top tech garments that are on the market today:

  • Nadi X Smart Yoga Pants—built-in haptic vibrations gently pulse at the hips, knees, and ankles to encourage movement and stability. The tech syncs up via Bluetooth using a companion app.
  • Ambiotex Smart Shirt—integrated sensors measure heart rate, anaerobic threshold, and stress levels while a clip-on box records data. Data can be viewed in realtime on the companion app which also provides biometric data insights.
  • Siren Smart Socks—small sensors placed throughout the socks measure the temperature of the foot and wirelessly transmit data to the Siren app. Data can be used to detect ulcerations, something that can result in amputation.

In fact, smart clothing is more than just performance based; it has the potential for many life-saving applications, too.

Neopenda is currently piloting a study of its smart baby hat. The hat measures vital signs such as temperature, heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation. With up to 24 hats being wirelessly synced to a single tablet with custom software, doctors will be able to check vital signs of a whole room of NICU babies at a glance.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How Will the Future of Smart Clothing be Engineered?

For now, the Adapt BB is the first sign of an integrated ecosystem of smart clothing that will charge wirelessly, remember your preferences, and even analyse your athletic performance. It has true potential to become more mainstream and to move into other sports.

In fact, even if you’re not a sportsperson, it has the potential to make a huge difference with applications to other areas of life. For example, Adapt Fit offers great potential for people with accessibility issues.

Current smart garments are fitted with sensors, however, the next generation of smart garments will see engineers turn the garment into a sensor itself. Once smart clothing becomes the norm, wrist-worn fitness trackers will become virtually obsolete.

From monitoring your heart rate, tracking blood pressure, and analysing your breathing, the possibilities are endless and with engineers at the helm, we may be seeing a clothing revolution sooner rather than later.

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