Smart tech not laced up


Nike’s most-advanced kicks have been turning into bricks. Blame the internet.

Last month, Nike began selling shoes that lace themselves. The $350 (R5000) Adapt BB shoes wirelessly connect to a phone to tighten and loosen with an app.

Fresh out of the box, Nike’s connected shoes recommended a software update – which broke some. More than an embarrassment, it exposed a truth that bears repeating about the future of all sorts of products: when something connects to the internet, you’re not really in control of it.

Mike, a sneaker collector in Virginia, said his expensive shoes were suddenly no longer even useful as shoes. The software update via his Android phone corrupted the “lace engine” so the sneaker couldn’t tighten – even with manual buttons.

“The whole thing is surreal,” said Mike, who spoke on the condition of not using his last name because he’s in the shoe-reselling business and feared retribution.

Nike said the problem had affected a small number of customers, though its app has a 2.4-star rating in Google’s Play store.

The self-lacing shoes are hardly the first “smart” thing to turn dumb. We’ve seen Nest thermostats freeze out owners and Teslas that won’t drive after an over-the-air update, a phenomenon called “bricking”.

Despite the frequent face palms, connected gadgets aren’t going away. There’s an argument to be made for going slow in adopting this technology, particularly when it offers trivial benefits. But connectivity is becoming standard on new cars, speakers, thermostats and doorbells. The world will have nearly 19 billion connected “things” by 2020, triple the number from 2016, Gartner estimates.

There’s a ton at stake for our security and privacy, not to mention sanity and money. How do we get the good connected things and avoid the ones that are going to end up on the internet of (expletive) list?

Nike said it has fixed its shoes, but we can learn a few things about staying in control from how it bricked them.

What is a connected shoe, smart speaker, thermostat or other connected thing really? It’s a way for a company to stay in your life. Of course, the manufacturers don’t present it that way. Nike said the power-lacing tech in the Adapt BB sneakers allows the shoe’s fit to adjust to athletes’ changing needs. A cable tightens the shoes when you press a button or tap on a smartphone app.

Nike’s app lets you dial in a precise fit and personalise some buttons. But its planning more: there’s also an accelerometer, gyroscope, capacitive and temperature sensor that could be unlocked with software updates to collect information about your steps, performance or who knows?

At the shoe’s launch, executives talked about the Adapt BB as an “intelligent product”. Staying in our lives after a purchase gives a manufacturer new opportunities to make money, be it from our data, advertising, in-app purchases or services.

Software updates are usually a good thing, I was reminded by Yves Béhar, the celebrated designer of many connected devices. “When it works, over-the-air software updates are incredibly useful at prolonging the relevance of a product,” Béhar said. Electric car updates improve battery life and speaker updates improve sound quality, he said.

But there’s trust in that relationship that has to be earned and can be easily ruined by putting features before privacy, simplicity and reliability.

Nike missed a few trust elements. For one, the sneakers have physical buttons, but they require working software and power to operate. Second, while software mishaps happen, Nike messed up. There are many different phone models and in its testing Nike didn’t realise some couldn’t maintain a Bluetooth connection well enough to apply a software update.

And some shoes were shipped without a “gold image” back-up of the software they needed to operate. It was a recipe for making self-lacing shoes come undone.

At least Nike had a warranty and responsive support team.

The Washington Post

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