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A first look at Nike’s idea for a “smart” sneaker

A hint of a Nike "smart" sneaker?
A page of a US patent office publication
Is Nike thinking about making a “smart” sneaker?
  • Marc Bain
By Marc Bain

Fashion reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Nike prides itself on innovation, and as it works to hit its goal of $50 billion in annual sales by 2020, it’s undoubtedly thinking about what innovations will get it there.

Two recent documents from the US patent office offer a glimpse into what the world’s largest sportswear brand has in the works, including one intriguing hint that Nike may have a “smart” sneaker in its sights, and another about a whole new dimension to Nike’s already popular customization program.

In a Dec. 29 patent for a system to record and display a user’s physical activity—on a smartphone app, for instance—Nike included a drawing of a sneaker with an activity tracker apparently built right in. The drawing, according to the patent, “illustrates one environment in which an athletic parameter measurement device” could be used. The patent suggests it would perform many of the functions of other wearables, monitoring a runner’s distance, speed, and calories burned. Nike could use that information to map a run route, and allow you to set different goals.

Nike declined to offer additional information, saying only that it has “a strong history of innovation and leadership in footwear design and development” and that it works to help athletes reach their potential.

A page of a US patent office publication
You know you can beat that 12-minute mile.

The market for wearable tech is poised to grow substantially in the coming years, though demand for wristbands in particular has encountered some obstacles with customers wanting their devices to do more than just one thing. The advantage of a sneaker with an embedded tracker is that you don’t need to put on a separate device.

While wearables are one of the big growth opportunities in footwear and apparel, customization is another—and that’s the focus of Nike’s other patent document. This one is an application Nike filed on Dec. 24, for new computer-based methods for customizing footwear. But what’s perhaps most interesting is that it could allow users much greater control in customizing Nike’s extremely popular Flyknit uppers.

“The footwear design interface may be configured to simulate the layout and/or operation of a knitting machine to provide the user with the impression of physically designing and/or manufacturing an article of footwear,” the application says. The user would be able to select different knit structures, meaning the pattern in which the textile is knit together, and could blend multiple colors in the knit, which Nike often does in its Flyknit sneakers.

Currently, Nike allows you to customize elements of Flyknit sneakers with its NikeiD program, but not to the level of the yarn itself.

A page from Nike's patent application
Knit picker.

Intriguingly, the new patent also suggests how Nike might one day allow users to custom-design a 3D-printed sneaker. In October, Nike COO Eric Sprunk said a future in which customers can 3D-print a Nike sneaker at home or at a local Nike store is “not that far away.” The sneaker he said this production model would emulate? The Flyknit.

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