How the Auto-Lacing Nike Mag Became a Reality

Innovator Tiffany Beers expains how she turned Tinker Hatfield's vision for Marty McFly's iconic sneakers from "Back to the Future Part II" a reality.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Back in 1988, Tinker Hatfield was asked to design a sneaker of the future for a movie. The movie was 1989's Back to the Future Part II. The sneaker he came up with—the auto-lacing Nike Mag—became a Holy Grail of sorts for sneaker aficionados, even though it wasn’t for sale and wasn’t being mass-produced initially. In fact, the only reason it ever became available to the public in the first place, back in 2011, was because of those aficionados. In a way, the story of the Nike Mag has turned out to be even more improbable than the plot of the time-traveling movie it was created for.

Try this: Hatfield’s job was to come up with a sneaker for 2015, which was then over 25 years in the future. He discarded the initial concept, for a shoe that allowed people to walk up walls—hence the “Mag” name, short for "Magnetic Anti-Gravity—and instead designed one with laces that automatically tighten. He wanted a visual effect. This was done through movie magic, using a huge external power supply. After all, it was the ‘80s.

But long after the movie exited theaters, the sneaker stuck with people. It was the ultimate in unattainable footwear, a one-of-none. And then one day, in the 2000s, Hatfield discovered that people online were petitioning for the sneaker to be produced and sold. He passed the project on to an engineer named Tiffany Beers, who spent the next few years figuring out how to make auto-lacing actually work in real life. And before even introducing the auto-lacing Nike Mag, she developed the HyperAdapt 1.0, an auto-lacing, all-purpose sneaker that will release in late November. So, by looking into the distant future back in 1988, Hatfield actually changed the future itself. Marty McFly couldn’t have done better.

The Nike Mag released in 2011, and it was almost perfect. The only flaw? They were missing one key detail: the auto-lacing feature.​ But this only whetted the consumer's appetite to have the real thing, and they would get a taste of that on October 21, 2015, the day that McFly discovered the sneakers in the film. Michael J. Fox unveiled the shoes with their auto-lacing capability on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and everyone began waiting for when Nike would make the shoes available to the public.

Now it’s 2016, one year after the Mag’s fictional release, and the auto-lacing version is finally here. There are just 89 pairs, to be distributed through a drawing on October 11, with all proceeds benefiting The Michael J. Fox Foundation. A Mag concierge wearing white gloves brings a pair out, and with the touch of a button inside the ankle collar, the “laces” tighten with an audible whine. Another button activates the lights in the midsole, the heel counter and the strap. The future has finally arrived.

We spoke to Beers, now Senior Innovator at Nike in Beaverton, Oregon, about how this version of the Mag came to be, and what comes next.

If you want to see the Nike Mag in person, check out the brand's space at 45 Grand Street in New York City, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Nike Mag Tiffany Beers

I'm imagining that one day you’re sitting at your desk and Tinker comes in with this movie prop like, “I came up with a shoe from the future—now you make it work.” Is that how it went down?
Essentially. I was actually just meeting him for the first time in a one-on-one conversation. Right after that meeting he came by my desk and said, “Hey, I got this project, are you interested?” I went to his desk, and he’s like, “So these people are doing this petition.” He pulled up this petition, it had like 30,000 plus signatures at that time. “It’s to remake the Back to the Future shoe, what do you think?” I had a year of experience at that point; I didn’t have enough knowledge to know better. I just figured, “Why not? Anything is possible.” And that’s how it started—he said, “There’s a shoe in the archives, go get it, figure it out.”

The original Mag from the movie self-laced, but it had this huge external battery. For the retail version, I assume the biggest challenge was fitting it all inside of a small package. You have a lot of room to work with here compared to the HyperAdapt, which is a much-smaller low-top.
The Mag is actually deceiving—it’s super minimalist. When Tinker designed this he was very into the future, so this entire shoe—the midsole is very, very thin because your foot sits down in it. It has very little real estate. With the HyperAdapt, we have much more room. So modifying this to fit the motorized system was quite a challenge. We focused on the HyperAdapt first to make it performance—durable and everything—and then we took a look at putting it in [the Mag].

Nike Mag Gif

So, in a sense, the Mag concept inspired the creation of HyperAdapt, but the HyperAdapt actually made it possible to do the auto-lace Mag.
Yeah. Tinker’s original vision for this shoe was to go after power lacing, but we focused on putting the HyperAdapt first. Because we learned from the 2011 Mag that people weren’t going to wear these a lot—it was a collector’s item. And we were into performance and getting a viable lacing system. We have tons of friends that have trouble lacing their shoes; there’s a huge performance benefit, but there’s also a necessity for it. And so all of that drove us to build it, and we tested it out, got it going on HyperAdapt. And then it was the spring of 2015, and they’re like, “Hey, you have it in the Mag, right?” And I was like, “Uh...let me work on that.” I grabbed a couple of engineers and said, “Today we gotta figure it out how to put it in here.” Tt was no small challenge to get it to pull the laces, because that was a particular setup. The laces are very exposed and in the original shoe they’re just elastic; here they pull down on the lateral side and pull into the bottom. It’s quite a nice fit.

You have a ton of people who remember the Mag in Back to the Future Part II, so you couldn't really change the exterior of the shoe. This was kind of opposite of what Nike does usually, where the design drives the technology. That must've been a challenge.
Yup, exactly. Normally we build the technology and build the shoe around it. Here, we built the technology, and then we had to fit it into the shoe and make it work and that is—in my opinion—10 times more challenging than building the shoe around the technology.

What was the most difficult part of getting it to work?
It’s definitely keeping the aesthetics, and it's also how the fit feels once you tighten it, because the mechanism is very powerful. You can pull stronger than you can pull your laces, and [it was hard] to get that to be very balanced where the laces pull together. You’ll notice when you're tightening it, the laces move differently because it’s sorting out where the volume of your foot is. The big challenge with this shoe is all the electronics are integrated in it, so it's not like we could build the shoe and then put the electronics in. As you’re building the shoe, as you put this component on, as you put that component on, you have to put in electronics. And that is very difficult in the footwear-making process, because you have lasts and very rigid and hard tools that you use to build the shoe.

Nike Mag 2016

Did you disassemble one of the original Mags and work out where things would fit? Did you have to re-engineer a lot of it? Does it look the same on the outside but the inside is totally different?
No, it looks the same on the outside, and the inside is similar. We used a lot of what we learned in 2011. Had we not done 2011, it would have taken much longer to build this. Because we kind of ironed out where and how to put the electronics in, and the factory was used to putting them in. So don’t get me wrong, this is still very prototype level. But it’s still very difficult to make. It’s very hard to get the electronics to survive the shoe-making process. The mechanism goes in last. If everything has survived the whole process, you put the mechanisms in, but we lost a lot of shoes during the making.

Was this designed to be more of a wearable shoe than 2011?
No, definitely not. I think this one is a little bit less wearable than 2011. It's a prototype. It was really challenging to get everything in there and not change the aesthetics. But we knew if we changed the aesthetics, people wouldn’t be happy with it. We don't recommend a ton of wear in [these shoes]— just preserve it for years. The electronics, like the battery in your phone, will die after a while, just from use. We have it set up so that your battery will unlatch, so it will preserve it. The battery will last for years. If you have it sitting on the shelf for a week or more, the battery will unlatch itself, so that it’s not sucking power and you get more life out of it.

Nike Mag 2016 2

Did making the new Mag provide insight for the next step of HyperAdapt?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of [the] differences in here is that the shoe is not plated—[the HyperAdapt] has a plate in it. A lot of our performance shoes have plates in [them]. This was our first go-around in an unplated product with [auto-lacing] in it. Another reason why it’s a prototype, definitely.

Is this the end-all-be-all for the Mag, or do you think there will be further versions, whether it’s a more wearable or more mass-produced version?
That’s a great question. Somebody else at Nike can probably do better answering that. To me, this is what it was—this is kind of a culmination, this is what people dreamed about. I’m more focused on HyperAdapt and where we take that technology and move further and further into performance. So I don’t know.

To put it more in your court, do you feel like you can take this shoe and walk back over to Tinker’s desk and be like, “Here’s what you asked for"? Is your part of the Mag story complete?
Yeah, I feel like this is what he asked for, for sure.

Nike Mag 2016 5

If this shoe, as currently constructed, were to go to retail, what would it sell for?
I have no idea.

This has been a pretty labor-intensive project.
Yeah, it’s very labor intensive. We would’ve done it differently if it was going to retail, I think. So it’s really hard to say what it would’ve cost. It’s still very much in the prototype world—under a 100 pairs is very, very small. I don’t think we even have enough information to know where we would price it.

Do you see there being a Mag 2?
That’s a great question. [Laughs] Do you think there should be a Mag 2?

Nike Mag 2016 6

I don’t know! I mean, I feel like there are things you could do with this shoe to make it more wearable, and obviously the ideal is a wearable version. I know that there is a HyperAdapt basketball shoe coming; I imagine that would end up being closer to this.
That’s the first time I've ever been asked or even thought about a Mag 2—that’s a good question.

To me the Mag is a shoe designed in the '80s for 2015; now we’re in 2016 and it exists. We’ve caught up to imaginary time, now we get to move ahead of that, which would be a Mag 2. I guess it won't have Air, either, right? That's old-school tech now. There’s no Air in the Mag.
Yeah, there is no Air. I think if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s when the consumers talk, Nike listens. You know, the petition that started it. Maybe start another petition for a Mag 2. [Laughs]