15 January 2019. Nike introduces its Adapt BB basketball shoe. A sneaker designed for basketball players where the fit of the shoe could be adjusted from a smartphone or by manual touch. Self-lacing shoes had officially gone from sci-fi fantasy to sports store reality. A matter of weeks later, Puma unveiled its own self lacing training shoe based on the sports company's new Fit Intelligence technology that's built for workouts and light running.
"Our launch was not a reaction to Nike's announcement. We had plans," says Charles Johnson, Puma's global director of innovation. "We knew Nike were doing it, we just didn’t know when it would announce it, so they stole a bit of our wind."
Johnson tells us that Puma's journey to ditch the laces started in 2014. It took just 10 months to get from a drawing to a solution involving motorised discs. A prototype was produced and it was revealed in 2015. While it was proof that the technology could work, Puma wasn't entirely satisfied with the results. "The promise was there, but it was heavier than we wanted it to be," Johnson says. "It was too expensive too, the motors were made by hand. All in all it wasn’t a realistic commercial proposition, but we did know people were interested in it."
Now Puma feels it has something that ticks all the boxes. It's spent the last few years optimising and fine tuning the hardware and working on getting the app experience where it needed to be. But as Johnson is keen to stress, this is not just about a sneaker, it's about the platform that underpins it. The self-lacing shoe is simply the first form of what Puma refers to as Fit Intelligence.
Building Fit Intelligence
Smart shoes are by no means new territory for a sports brand that's making something of a comeback, thanks in part to a growing list of high profile ambassadors from the sporting and music worlds. Before Nike, Adidas and Under Armour were making connected kicks, we can go all the way back to 1986 for Puma's first foray into the space. Its RS-Computer shoe with the big heel had a computer chip built into the heel that was capable of recording a runner's distance, time and calories expanded.
Essential reading: The best smart clothing to buy now
2018 was the 30th anniversary of the retro running shoe so Puma decided to do a reissue. It swapped run tracking for simple fitness tracking, included LED lights to indicate tracking progress and it even came with a retro-looking companion app to help keep an eye on your data. Only 86 pairs of the 2018 reissue were made and unsurprisingly sold out pretty quickly. Johnson says the decision to give the retro shoe a modern makeover represented something of a bookend for the company.
"The Computer Shoe is about our legacy," Johnson tells us. "It was the first sports wearable product beyond a digital watch. People didn’t know much about the shoe but we wanted to recall it and show that we had these smart shoes with sensors. Today we are using technology to improve fit for athletes. We wanted to forge our way forward with smart products, but I’m a firm believer in, in order to know where you’re going you need to know where you’ve been."
Since the RS Computer shoe, Puma has sought to smarten up other footwear including football boots to track metrics on the field. It built a shoe that could track the basics, but also included sensors that could measure data like velocity. It learned that consumers didn't care about that kind of data, but these kinds of projects have shaped its new approach to smart shoes. "There’s no point in inventing something just because we can," Johnson says. "The things that are exciting me are not the things you can accurately measure, but rather what sort of simple experiences digital tech can bring. It’s not so much about elite performance. Part of being active is not just about sport. We are trying to figure out the space that’s not just about elite performance."
Consumers don't want fitness tracking shoes
Johnson is very aware of the responses that both Nike and Puma's self lacing shoes have received particularly on social media. Responses that postulate these models are simply for people too lazy to tie their shoes. But he's keen to stress that at least from Puma's perspective, there is a real place for these shoes.
"Take the scenario of when you’re running through the airport and you want to tighten up your shoes, or you get on the plane and want to loosen them again," he said.
"We talk to Esport gamers and when they are sitting playing the game, they want to loosen their shoes, or when the gaming gets tense they want a different sensation. It may be the thing that it’s not great for everything. It may be good for trail running but not great for football because motors on the top of the foot is not good for kicking the ball. Those are the things we are hoping to learn."
Outside of the tech that unlocks Puma's self-lacing system, it opted against taking a similar smart shoe approach to Under Armour by adding more sensors to track richer workout metrics. "We know how to build sensors into shoes to track data, we can modernise that already," he said.
"What we’ve released and decided is that consumers don’t want that and will get a sports watch or smartwatch instead. We may go to back to offering those simple smarts in a shoe. But we also quite have a history in fit. We were the first brand to use velcro instead of lacing, so you could say that was the first laceless shoe. That has evolved into this Fit technology. We had the cable system and the motorised disc system, but it was too heavy, unwieldy and expensive. But we still wanted this to be a technology we wanted to bring. It’s all part of a continuation of those smart shoes but also improving the fit."
Time for a Puma smartwatch
While Puma's smart ambitions seem rooted closely to the ground for now, we know it already has designs on those connected features one day living inside our garments and watches. In 2018, Puma signed a huge 10-year agreement with Fossil Group to bring its own smartwatches to the market. We hoped the first watch borne out of this long term partnership would be revealed some time this year. However Johnson was unable to confirm when we will see that first Puma smartwatch. He was though able to shed some light on how the collaboration is coming along and how that first watch might take shape when it does land.
We are not going to do a Puma version of a Misfit device
"At its core it’s a licensing partnership. We are not watchmakers, but our consumers want watches, so we are partnering with an expert," he says. "Fossil knows about brands on the lifestyle side of things, but they are interested in our brand and some of our portfolio too. The agreement means we can get into the wearable space without creating products on our own.
"If you think about this complete experience in the wearable space, that was one of our attractions to Fossil. We are not going to do a Puma version of a Misfit device. We are going to look to use wearable technology in an active, fun way. At the same time, that option is there because we are partners for a long time. There is this idea a Puma smartwatch could tie into our Pumatrac app that's not just all about metrics. It's also about training and communities."
Talk of collaborations outside the realms of smart shoes brings us to a short-lived partnership with the now shuttered startup Lumo Bodytech. Back in 2017, the maker of posture training wearable the Lift and the Lumo Run run coach wearable announced it was working on a 'cutting edge' AI coaching device. Lumo remained tight-lipped on what the device would be, but since Lumo is no more, we were keen to find out just how far down the line Puma got with making this 'cutting edge' AI coaching device.
"What was really interesting about Lumo was the thing it was able to measure was not just statistics. It could measure how you were moving in space," he explains.
"What we realised was that while the technology was interesting, there wasn't something we could do to make it meaningful for our consumer. There were a lot of things I imagined we could do with the Lumo tech, but at the end we are unable to convince our business partners about it. We didn’t really shape anything concrete. We had the technology, we had the devices, we just didn’t make anything out of it. The Lumos of our world are a learning experience."
Spreading the smarts around
So Puma's self-lacing shoe is just the start of its vision for this Fit Intelligence platform and building gear that can respond to an athlete's environment. One of the problems with Fit Intelligence is that you still have to manually adjust the fit of the shoe itself, but Johnson envisages a time when your shoes just know what to do. As the motor technology gets smaller there's no reason why it couldn't be brought to a garment, according to Johnson.
Puma has plans to launch new shoe technology in early 2020 it tells us will be groundbreaking. A partnership with Swiss sports apparel developer X-Bionics announced back in January could well help accelerate plans to bring its Fit tech to garments next. It's also returning to Milan Design Week to build on the Biodesign research it presented with MIT Design Lab at last year's show, and will "take it to another level," according to Johnson.
Another interest is in the area of mindfulness and its relationship to sport and tapping to the obsession of what Johnson calls ultra data. "What if you could run, train seriously, but you leave your smartphone behind but you still have the ability to track? That could be a future RS Shoe. Fill it up with basic measurements, more smaller technology, and no big box on the back of your heel. Just a simple experience that uses modern tech, but not about a elite runner. That could be a modern computer shoe without a honking heel on the back."