The story behind Nike's self-lacing, 'Back to the Future'-inspired shoes

December 1, 2016, 12:03 PM

— -- One year into her tenure working inside Nike's Innovation Kitchen, where the company's designers dream up the future, Tiffany Beers was given an assignment: Figure out how to make a real, working prototype of the shoe the company created for Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future Part II."

The project at the time seemed a little off the beaten path.

Nike's lead designer, Tinker Hatfield, had come up with the shoe, which featured a self-lacing system and lights, for the 1988 movie and had even filed for a design patent that covered the structure. But why spend time actually producing the futuristic shoe that might have no practical applications to Nike's future business?

"It was a lot like the movie prop process itself," Hatfield recalled. "We could have done a lot less with it, but we dreamed as big as we could. In this case, I knew we wanted to work on it a bit and that we wouldn't be able to run it up the flagpole unless we had a working prototype."

On Thursday, roughly 11 years after Beers was initially given the assignment, the first self-lacing shoes will reach the mass marketplace. The HyperAdapt 1.0 will be awarded via a random lottery, with winners selected from a list of those who signed up through Nike's app. Quantities are not being disclosed, but the company isn't expected to have any issue completely liquidating supply at a cost of $720 a pair. It is being called the most ambitious project in shoe-making history, and given what it took to get here, there are few who contest that claim.

This is the story of that journey.

Paging Marty McFly

Hatfield is Nike's legendary designer. Sneakerheads know him as the guy who took over the Jordan franchise in the third year and gets much of the credit -- outside of Michael Jordan himself -- for turning the brand into a $3 billion empire.

When Hatfield designed the futuristic shoe for "Back to the Future Part II," the working model wasn't really working. In order to light the footwear, Michael J. Fox was wearing a huge battery pack. Those cool self-lacing shoes? Holes were made in the stage floor and people pulled the laces on cue.

As time went on, Hatfield, in public appearances, was always asked about one of two things: Michael Jordan, or those shoes Marty McFly wore. As the Internet proliferated, the noise got louder. Fans of the movie and the shoes started adding their names to petitions.

"When I saw 30,000 names on those petitions, I just knew we had to figure some way to actually make this shoe one day," Hatfield said.

So he gave the assignment to a young up-and-comer, the 25-year-old Beers, a plastics engineer who had recently come over from Rubbermaid, where she was tasked with taking things typically made out of metal and building them with plastic.

For three years, Beers spent half her time building the actual shoe dubbed the Nike MAG. By 2007, she had a working prototype with lights, but it had to be constantly plugged into the wall to work.

"And then technology stalled," Beers said. "We had to wait if we wanted to make a shoe like this truly functional."

A couple years later, Beers picked up the project again to deliver what the masses wanted: A "Back to the Future" shoe they could touch and wear.

In 2011, the Nike MAG -- with lights but not automatic lacing -- was unveiled. Nike auctioned off 1,500 pairs at an average price of $3,797 a pair, with all the proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation to raise money for Parkinson's disease research.

It could have all ended there. But it didn't.

The shoes take shape -- literally

"We were leaving the launch event in a car and [Nike CEO] Mark [Parker] says to me, 'That was great. How long is it going to take to make them with auto-laces?'" Beers recalled.

At this point, Parker wasn't just talking about the MAG, he was talking about building a real auto-lacing shoe that could be worn every day -- just like all the company's other shoes.

In Year 7 of Beers' assignment, the practical nature of the project started to take shape. She understood she was now being asked to put auto-laces in something beyond a movie prop.

"We've been looking at the feet of an athlete for a long time," Hatfield said. "There are so many whose feet just look like misshaped blobs that barely work anymore. Some of that has to do with the foot being tight in a dark place. We thought, 'What happens if as we're building this auto-lacing movie shoe we also build a parallel shoe in order to advance Nike performance innovation?'"

Lacing systems hadn't really evolved much over the past couple centuries. Puma is credited with being the first company to put Velcro on shoes in 1968. Puma again innovated in 1991, when it took away the laces in place of a disc that would allow a consumer to close a shoe. Reebok, of course, had the Reebok Pump, which debuted in 1989, but the filling of the air bladders around the foot didn't substitute for lacing.

Beers took inventory of what she needed to break new ground in the industry with a shoe whose laces you didn't have to tie.

There had to be a sensor that recognized when the foot was in the shoe and where the foot was in relation to the laces, so that the fit would be right when the shoe was tied. There also had to be a motor so that the laces would tighten and loosen.

There were a lot of problems to solve -- one involved where to put the motor.

Beers said she was comforted by the development of a plate in the foot built by the designers of the Jordan XX8, which created a perfect pocket between the sole of the foot and the sole of the shoe. In that space, the battery could be put under the foot without hurting the battery or compromising the comfort of the wearer, she said.

As time went on, it became apparent that the quest to make the self-lacing shoe wasn't happening in isolation. It wasn't just some crazy side project that would result in sneakerheads and movie lovers getting the shoe they dreamed of, and Nike going on its way having satisfied a niche market.

"While we were trying to make this futuristic shoe, we started to see practical applications elsewhere," Beers said. "We used the foam exterior for a Jordan shoe. Our learning about batteries had allowed us to build snowboard boots that lit up in 2013, and heated boots that we gave to our athletes for the Winter Olympics in 2014 in Vancouver."

The conversation that Beers and Parker had in the car in 2011 wasn't public. No one knew Nike was going to go through with actually making a self-lacing sneaker.

That all changed in February 2014, when Hatfield disclosed at a Jordan event during the NBA's All-Star Weekend that the self-lacing shoe would hit the market in 2015.

Sneakerheads rejoiced.

Beers was blindsided. She was never told that 2015 was the timeline, even though it made practical sense. It was the year that "Back to the Future Part II" flashed forward to -- a year in which, ridiculously, the Cubs would win the World Series.

"Mark Parker said to me, 'Oh man, you really stuck your neck out on that one,'" Hatfield said. "And I did. I added more urgency and put pressure on the team. If I don't do that, I don't think a shoe comes out in 2015, and the shoe that is coming out now doesn't come out in 2016."

With the secret out, Beers was now free to outsource the work. She hired the best electrical and mechanical engineer she could find. The investigation into specific motors got more serious.

Nike found an off-the-shelf small motor it could adapt within the shoe.

And then it stalled again.

Beers said the company that made the motor, which Nike is not disclosing, was not convinced of how Nike had rigged it. Although it worked, it wasn't being used in a way the company had imagined. While getting the call from Nike was obviously an honor, the undisclosed company needed to protect itself.

With some convincing, the blessing was given. On Oct. 21, 2015 -- the future date Marty McFly traveled to in the 1988 sequel -- a working pair of Nike MAGs were given to Michael J. Fox. Fox, in an office with Parker and Beers, shared how the shoes functioned on social media.

"I never said how many we were going to have," Hatfield said. "We made at least one."

Sneakerheads had to wait a year later to get their hands on the self-lacing Nike MAGs. Nike held a lottery, backed by $6.75 million in purchased raffle tickets, for fans to win one of 85 pairs of the shoes. Four others would be sold via auction around the world, with the last pair going for $200,000 at the annual Michael J. Fox Foundation event in New York on Nov. 12.

Nike wasn't done

The true prize wasn't the self-lacing MAG shoes, it was a regular, everyday shoe that laced itself.

Parker hinted this was coming in October 2015, the same day Fox's video hit social media.

"We started creating something for fiction and we turned it into a fact, inventing a new technology that will benefit all athletes," Parker said.

It was shortly after that car ride that Beers had built a prototype running shoe that would auto-lace and could be manually adjusted by the user pushing a "tighten" or "loosen" button.

"I would make the laces tighter when I was running up hills and loosen them going down hills, and I noticed I was able to provide the changing support I needed while keeping pace," Beers said. "It made us realize how this could help athletes -- guys who tie their shoe tight to start a game, but need adjustments as their feet swell as they play."

Eventually, Beers reasoned, a shoe would be built that would automatically make these types of adjustments. But with the first shoe, it was important to give the consumer the option of manual adjustment.

There was a new focus on practicality. Sure, the Nike MAG had been implemented and was a functioning shoe, but there were only 89 pairs in the marketplace and no one was wearing them every day.

With a self-contained auto-lacing shoe that could be worn on an everyday basis, battery life became a greater focus, as did the sound of the motor.?

"The initial prototype we had with working motors sounded like a cat getting hit with a chainsaw," Beers said. "No one wants to hear that every day."

Beers said the sense was that the consumer didn't want to have the inconvenience of always charging the battery. So Nike built one that would last for a week if a person wore it every day and constantly adjusted it. With normal use, it can easily last two weeks without going on the magnetic pucks Nike provides that stick to the shoe soles. Outside chargers also work, so a Mophie charge could keep the shoe functioning for months.

In March 2016, Nike announced the concept, the HyperAdapt 1.0, with E.A.R.L., which stands for Electro Reactive Adaptive Laces. The abbreviation, which is on the shoe's tongue, comes from Hatfield's love of robotics -- further evident in his admiration of the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E.?

As Nike announced the innovation near New York City's Madison Square Garden that day, no shoes had been made for the market. It meant that the first offering was going to be limited, but it was also going to be special. Whatever happened, it had to go right.

Preparing for the future

Soon after the announcement, a team went to Nike's Development Center in Taiwan to figure out how to build the shoes step-by-step. Once determined, the process was moved to Vietnam, where the actual production began. The weight of a size-9 shoe was trimmed to 14 ounces, which is lighter than a typical basketball shoe but a couple of ounces heavier than is typical of running shoes. The battery weighs an ounce.

Nike does not openly talk about its pricing and margins, but ultimately the $720 price point was agreed upon -- an outrageous sum, but nothing out of the ordinary to sneakerhead collectors who frequently spend that amount on a pair of shoes on the resale market.

Knowing it is changing convention, Nike wants to make sure everything goes right. That means for the first time in the company's history, Nike is creating a special hotline for registered owners of the HyperAdapt 1.0 to call in with questions at any time. Beers said it's set up so that she eventually gets all the feedback in written form.

On the bottom of the shoe, where the charger indicator goes (it changes from green to yellow to red), is printed "MT2," which stands for Mark (Parker), Tinker and Tiffany. It's a nice tribute to those who have worked for so long on this project.?

For Hatfield, the bigger tribute might be a longer lasting legacy.

"I'm closer to the end of my career than the beginning, and I want to go out with a bang," said Hatfield, who started at Nike in 1981 and started designing shoes in 1985. "I think this is going to become a big deal. I think in the future, shoes are going to do the work for you. They're going to adapt to your feet, they're going to adjust, they're going to have smart technology -- just like cars and vacuum cleaners.

"I think in 10 years, 50 percent of all Nike shoes will be power laces."

Sounds crazy. But that's not the first time Hatfield has been called crazy. One of the reasons the shoe is coming out Thursday is because Hatfield -- and Nike -- didn't listen to those people.