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Think about this for a minute: Back in 1989, Tinker Hatfield was invited to design a shoe from 2015 for Back to the Future II. The shoe he came up with, a light-up, self-lacing high-top called the Nike MAG, became as iconic as anything in the film, and itself wound up influencing sneaker design. So much so, that yesterday Tinker introduced Nike’s newest innovation: a light-up, self-lacing sneaker called the HyperAdapt 1.0, that will release in 2016. By attempting to predict the future for a movie, Hatfield actually predicted the future. Which, as it turns out, has become his literal job. “They pay me to be a futurist,” he says. “That’s my line and I’m sticking to it.”
But over dinner following a long day of media in New York City, Hatfield is being asked to re-hash the past, and is happy to do so. One more time anyway. “What made that [ MAG] conversation tolerable is the fact that we knew this was coming. We kind of couldn’t wait for this to break. So we could talk about what was really actually Nike, which is the performance side. It’s not a gimmick man, this is the real deal.”
It didn’t start that way. In fact, initial discussions with the filmmakers about what would become the MAG were completely different. “Those guys in the movie wanted us to do magnetic levitation—what the fuck is that?,” Hatfield says. “What does that do? What is that? He’s on the wall—what good is that? That’s like an old gag, someone walking up a wall. I struggled with it, because that’s what Bob Zemeckis wanted us to do. So I’d go back, after the meeting, I’m like Mark, I’m on the plane with Mark [Parker], I don’t think that’s a good vision for the future. I don’t even know why anyone would want to walk up a wall or—why would you stand on a ceiling? And hang there like a bat!”
“It took me a couple of rounds to basically tell those guys, look, if you want to use magnetic levitation, forget about the levitation part, and that’s just how he sticks to the hoverboard. But otherwise the big story, and I sketched it up on the storyboard was the ZHOOP!—the shoe comes alive and it was very theatrical.”
What started as theatrics over the years became a real bit of problem solving. How do you take something designed for a movie—where practical needs like flexibility and weight and bulk didn’t matter—and turn it into a practical design element? As it turns out, Hatfield’s fictional prediction was only a year off. Meanwhile, some of the theatrics remain. As the shoe tightens on your foot, the ZHOOP! is still quite audible. Given advancements, couldn’t it have been silent?
“We could have [made it silent],” Hatfield says. “The original noise was kind of high-pitched and irritating and she [co-designer Tiffany Beers] fixed it.” “It was like a chainsaw and a cat had a bad day,” Beers says.
The theatrics continue with the MAG-like glowing lights, which not only indicate battery life and the motor operation, but add some literal shine to an otherwise purely functional build. This too is wholly intentional.
Asked who the ideal wearer is, Hatfield reaches quite a bit back further than 1989. “I kind of wanted it to be a little like a Chuck Taylor low-top in that you could just wear it, but obviously you could do a few more things than a Chuck Taylor. It’s even in the drawing. Where is that drawing?”
Beers goes through her phone until she finds the one Hatfield is indicating. “Show ‘em that sketch—Chuck and Earl. See? There’s a story there.” (“Earl” is an anagram for “electro assist reactive lacing.")
Is there a 2.0 in the works? Of course there is. Hatfield initially wanted Beers to work up a basketball shoe in time for this Olympics, but it seems that will come a little later. “The 2.0, it’s going to be a seriously high-performance basketball shoe,” Hatfield says, “and in order to go down that road I think you really need to pick a style of player, or a player, and make that work.” He offers no further details.
That won’t be the end, either. Hatfield sees HyperAdapt as the next big thing. “Mark Parker, he’s pretty stoic as a personality, he sees it now,” Hatfield says. “This is a sea change—what we’re going to be able to roll off of this approach to this adaptability can go in like five different directions, and will, including into apparel.” By the 2020 Olympics? “I think it will be well-entrenched by then.”
It’s possible that Hatfield is wrong, that HyperAdapt will be an evolutionary dead end, the end of the MAG story rather than the beginning of something much larger. But we know not to doubt Hatfield when it comes to the future. It is, after all, his job.