Nike's Air Adapt BB Is Much More Than Just a Self-Tying Shoe

What felt like the future now feels overdue.

By Eitan Levine
on
Nike Adapt BB
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I think we’re all aware that Nike wants to make self-tying shoes really, finally, happen. The world’s top shoe brand seems to think shoes you don’t have to lace up are the future.

… And after testing out its latest attempt, I don’t not agree?

It’s complicated. After the recent debut of its latest self-tying sneakers, Nike hasn’t completely sold me on the concept of an app that triggers mechanics to tie your shoes for you. But I’m almost there.

But first, let’s skip back a few decades: The concept of self-tying shoes dates back to 1989 and the release of Back to the Future Part II. The image of Michael J. Fox’s self-tying Nikes stamped itself onto the brains of millions.

It became such a cultural touchstone that in 2015, Nike partnered up with the Michael J. Fox Foundation to produce a limited run of retro-future footwear for charity. Fox even wore the sneakers during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.

“They lace up on their own?” Kimmel asked Fox.

“Yeah, see the thing?” Fox replied.

The studio audience cheered.

That shoe, the Air Mag, now sells for $30,000 on StockX and isn’t really meant to actually be worn. I would make the argument that the Air Mag is as much a shoe as that couch in your mom’s house you’re never allowed to sit on is a functional part of the living room.

In 2016, Nike released another self-tying attempt: the HyperAdapt. The most notable difference is that it doesn’t have any real aesthetic connection to Back to the Future Part II. It is sneaker that also happens to have some sci-fi tech in the sole.

While the Air Mag was all about nostalgia, the HyperAdapt shows us what a practical version of the shoe would look like. Just like its predecessor, the $720 price tag and functionality kept HyperAdapt from evolving beyond an expensive, limited run.

If Nike’s next self-tying sneakers were to avoid becoming another sneakerhead novelty — or worse, a forgettable attempt at one — it would have to solve for everyday usage. People need to forget they’re wearing self-tying shoes for them to succeed. You also probably want to give customers the ability to not be constantly remembering how they just dropped six months’ rent on StockX for sneakers.

That is where the Adapt BB, which debuted last month, comes in.

Nike Air Adapt BB

“Unlike Marty McFly’s Air Mag, the Adapt BB is the self-tying shoe that hides the fact it’s a self-tying shoe.”

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Priced at $350 and made with an emphasis on manufacturing a fully functional sneaker, the Adapt BB is Nike’s attempt at feeling out just how much the larger shoe market is willing to get on board with a practical, self-tying boot.

I was invited to play around in a pair at Nike’s NYHQ this month, and after spending an afternoon wearing a pair of Adapt BB sneakers, I can confidently say Nike really did find a way to seamlessly merge functionality and tech to make this sneaker more than a flex.

And unlike Marty McFly’s Air Mag, the Adapt BB is the self-tying shoe that hides the fact it’s a self-tying shoe.

“Nike has finally made countless dreams come true: a custom shoe for everyone,” writes Michael Donaghu, Nike’s VP of Innovation, in a corporate blog post published in time with the shoe’s debut.

His proclamation might turn out to partly true. The Adapt BB weighs, wears, and moves like any other basketball shoe. It isn’t overly rigid and doesn’t feel like walking on the brick I assumed it would be. I shot around with them on in a Nike gym, and they were as comfortable as any other pair of Nikes.

(I am terrible at basketball, so the idea of having to act semi-competent on a court with Nike employees was horrifying. I survived though. Ja’boy does it all for my fam.)

Nike Air Adapt BB

“It doesn’t feel like walking on the brick I assumed it would be.”

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One of the biggest surprises about these shoes is that you don’t even see the laces tighten. The whole device runs off a single cord and a motorized spool that is hidden by fabric. It’s the least-magical version of this kind-of-cool concept — and that’s perfectly fine. It almost needs to be.

My Instagram story when I wore the shoes made a prediction Nike hopes will come true.

The tightening itself is controlled via a minimalist app wherein the wearer slides a large “L” (for left) or “R” (for right) up or down to adjust how tight they want the laces to become.

If you don’t have your phone, the sole of the Adapt BB also features a lighting panel that doubles as a tightness control button, so you can adjust the “laces” without the app. The shoes need to be recharged every two weeks by being placed on a special charging platform that comes included.

The laces are made to not loosen during games and come with built-in safety features to make sure the wearer avoids getting stuck.

Adapt BB has already started being used in the NBA, NCAA, and high school basketball games. Nike says that the athletes who have used them during games have had positive experiences.

The Adapt BB isn’t a perfect shoe, though.

For one, when it tightens the motor makes a high-pitched whirring sound. Nike says this sound is synonymous with the concept of self-tying laces, so they specifically didn’t mute or muffle it. That being said, one of my friends who watched my Instagram story simply commented, “I hate this.” So, who is right here? Probably both of us. Like anything new, this shoe will be ridiculed at first. It won’t be for everyone — until maybe it is.

Nike Adapt BB Instagram reaction
Just one take I got in reaction to my Instagram story.

My second problem with the shoe is something I didn’t quite realize would be a problem — until I tried on the pair. I’m not sure Nike can fix this as easily as muffling a motor.

There is a certain level of nostalgia that comes with tying laces. It’s like how reading a comic on an iPad sucks compared to reading an actual paperback. There is also, less tangibly, something special about holding a comic book, and that concept sort of translates to tying shoes. Then again, daily local newspaper publishers used to say the same thing about the print editions, and that industry is on death’s door.

Right now, the system is only being offered on one pair of Nikes, specially built for the self-lacing technology. Nike may put the tech on other, more popular lines in the future, which raises the question: Who wants to wear a pair of Jordans that you don’t even get to lace up? They’re just laces, but the ending of this near lifelong habitual process was striking. I never thought I would be sentimental about tying my shoes.

As younger players have enjoyed Adapt BB, it may not be the shoe for everybody — yet.

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Nike's Michael Donaghu
Nike's Michael Donaghu 

Nike isn’t the only one trying to circle the market. In 2015, the Puma Autodisc debuted a similar concept to Nike that involved a rotating spool attached to cords that controlled sneaker snugness.

In 2019, Puma announced the follow-up: Fi (which stands for Fit Intelligence). When it launches, it will be priced at $330, $20 less than the Adapt BBs.

Interestingly, other major sneaker makers appear quiet on this self-lacing front. There are crowd-sourced efforts, like Power Laces, but it doesn’t appear that any other major sneaker suppliers are attempting to get involved with the concept.

So either Nike has too much money and Puma is shooting for the moon, or the next generation will have no use for “Loop, Swoop, and, Pull!”


Now read this: There are 140 Million Reasons Nike Is Changing Its Store Design