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The Sneaker Wars Take to the Future

Adidas and Nike release their next-gen products within weeks of each other.

Adidas 3D-Printed Futurecraft Runner Photo: Adidas

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Hollywood loves the future. From The Jetsons to Westworld, it’s consistently fascinated by potential far-off realities. So too is the sneaker industry.

You’ve read the stories about automated factories, shoes made out of plastic, 3D-printed sneakers, and of course, Back to the Futures famous shoes, which kickstarted Nike’s almost 30-year-long development process. Stories tantalizing, but seemingly as far-fetched as what you see on screen.

But now we’re doing the reverse of what that creepy girl in The Ring did: We’re crawling into the TV. Two weeks ago, Nike finally made good on its promise of the self-lacing shoe with the HyperAdapt 1.0 ($720 — yes, you read that correctly). The shoe has a cable strung throughout it called Flywire that automatically tightens to your foot once you step into it.

Nike calls it — and get used to this — the future of footwear. The company’s senior innovator Tiffany Beers told us the technology can help save athletes’ feet and be a game-changer for anyone — children, elderly, disabled — who has difficulty tying their shoes.

Adidas counter-punched with its first-ever 3D-printed shoe, the Futurecraft Runner ($333). It’s one of the products to come out of Adidas’s cutting-edge Speedfactory, a production center based in Atlanta that enables the company to make shoes faster and thus better respond to customer’s requests (or, at this rate, whims). Similar to how Nike views its HyperAdapt 1.0, the senior director of Adidas’s Future team, Mikal Peveto, calls the 3D printing technology used to create the Futurecraft Runner “a North Star for the industry.”

Peveto believes 3D printing is integral to the sneaker industry’s future because it can help companies like Adidas tailor shoes for each individual user. 3D printing can create “customized shoes based on an individual’s footprint — including their running style, foot shape, performance needs, and personal preferences,” Peveto explains.

This kind of technology was previously reserved for elite athletes, so it’s a big deal that anyone (with a few hundred bucks) can get in on it now. Olympians received the Futurecraft Runner during the games in Rio while the rest of us watched from home. Michael J. Fox and Nike raffled off 89 pairs of Nike Air Mags, a replica of the shoes depicted in Back to the Future II. And 3D printing has been used to produce parts of shoes — like the plates on the bottom of Nike’s Vapor Ultimate Cleats or the outsoles on Reebok’s Liquid Speed — but Adidas hopes to take that even further with its Futurecraft series. Eventually, the brand hopes customers will come into the store, run on the treadmill for a little, and get a sole that is specifically engineered for them printed right there during the same visit.

Nike’s vice president of creative concepts, Tinker Hatfield, has defended the HyperAdapt 1.0 against claims it’s just a gimmick, and you could probably say the same for 3D printing. If this first iteration of the Futurecraft Runner isn’t actually personalized to my foot, what is the real breakthrough?

It’s that we’re not just reading or watching about the fantasy of these concepts: We’re making reservations to buy them in stores and on apps, real consumers are testing them out, and a normal person can trade hard-earned American dollars for them. We’ve come a long way since Marty McFly previewed the self-lacing shoes in 1989 and it finally feels like we’re starting to live in that same imagined world. Now if only we could get some damn hoverboards.