Nike’s Computational Shoes: Algorithms To Boot

2nd February, 2018 by

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, a number of endorsed athletes were seen donning a very special item created by the titan of sporting appeal: the Zoom Superfly Elites. The shoes were initially hyped for numerous reasons, the first of which were their unique design, in which the sole was molded into a single complete plate instead of individual screwed spikes. As a result, the absence of individual pieces made them lighter than traditional sprinting trainers, which infamously helped competing athletes like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce cut down her time during practice. The other reason that the shoes caught the attention of the world at large was that those trainers were some of the first partly designed using Nike’s algorithms. That’s right, algorithms.

Now, that technology, which debuted for a major international sporting event, is being used to design trainers for the average customer, bringing the idea of wearable technology into an entirely different realm. No longer does the term refer to pieces of technology designed to adorn your body, with just as much attention going into the form as well as the function; this is fashion designed by computational design.

Epic React Flyknit

The latest shoe, the Epic React Flyknit, is the first line of Nike shoe to incorporate the React foam, launched in 2017 as part of the Nike React Hyperdunk. The React Hyperdunk encased the foam with an outer layer in order to ensure traction and stability needed on the court (Nike has spread its reach into multiple arenas, but basketball remains its most reliable market). However, the Epic React Flyknit leans into the technology fully, with a bottom sole made of a single piece of foam with absolutely no casing.

In this way, the Epic React is a perfect fusion of both the Hyperdunks and the Zoom Superfly Elites, taking the single sole design and incorporating the react foam, all for mass consumption. The shoes are the result of two different waves of innovation, and two different lines of shoes, but it was still led by Nike’s machine design department. The process of computational design involves converting data—measurements, weight, etc—into design principles, like structural patterns, silhouette, and the like.

The machines similarly incorporate the different needs of the buyer. The Zoom Superfly Elites were designed for runners, thus the computational system prioritized lightness and aerodynamics. For the Epic React Flyknits, the design principles were largely about traction and stability—essentially the ABCs of a basketball shoe. Additionally, algorithmic data allows for Nike to incorporate more precise engineering elements. The differences in the depths of the grooves are on a kind of gradient, contingent on everything from shoe size to gender.

Nike’s Innovative History

Nike has always been a company at the frontlines of innovation: their television adverts, their print campaigns, that iconic slogan. The company has been on the front lines of innovative marketing for the better part of four decades, functioning in the public consciousness in much the same as leading tech companies. While companies like Apple and Nike might seem like oranges and, well, apples, the two companies approach innovation with similar vigor. So, it should come as no surprise that the latter has leaned on the industry of the former.

Products like trainers and running shoes have always incorporated the deep study of the human body. Researchers in the Human Performance Lab of the University of found that a stiff outsole reduces the amount of energy lost at the metatarsophalangeal joint (which is, for the layman, the part of your foot where the pad meets the base of your toe). Reducing the amount of energy improves an athlete’s efficiency at sprinting long or short distances, and jumping. Computational design allows for the immediate implementation of this kind of data directly into the design of a product. This could go a long way in both making shoes that are more durable, better for our feet, and perhaps even more affordable and less specialized. Nike has long lead the way in terms of design. Perhaps their most brilliant move has been in stepping back and letting the machines do the leading.


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