The all-white upper of the shoe I'm looking at doesn’t seem terribly different from the well-regarded Ultra Boost silhouette—a quick comparison suggests they’re nearly identical. Narrowly cut with a pointed toe, the only real difference is that this upper has a knitted construction and features no more visual flourishes than absolutely necessary. It's a wholly decent design. But it’s in the midsole and outsole of this new shoe where you find the real differentiator, and Adidas’s latest innovation: a 3-D-printed, lattice-like bed of foam that replaces the styrofoam-esque base of its counterpart.
It’s called Futurecraft 3D, and it’s the first official project—for now, a prototype—from a newly formed unit inside of Adidas, also named Futurecraft. Spearheaded by Eric Liedtke and Paul Gaudio, the chief marketing officer and creative director, respectively, the group is focused solely on pushing the company’s technical initiatives forward by opening up Adidas’s technologies to outside collaborators. Remember the shoe from earlier this year made entirely of recycled plastic? Futurecraft played an important part in the design and creation of that, which was a collaboration with the nonprofit Parley for the Oceans, and designer Alexander Taylor.
But back to the shoe for a second. Work on the technology that makes it possible started almost a year ago under Gaudio, and the most impressive part is that it not only looks like something you can wear every day but, by all accounts, is meant to function as a true running shoe.
"It’d be easy to make a 3-D-printed product for a lifestyle shoe, but it’s hard to make a 3-D-printed product for performance," says Liedtke. "We started with a running silhouette, because what we like is that it really reduces weight compared to a traditional midsole."
That’s not to say it doesn’t share some of the futuristic aesthetics or benefits of the other 3-D-printed shoes that have come before it. (Adidas says the midsole uses less material and is lighter than other comparable midsoles.) But you also won’t feel like you’re making a statement every time you step out of the house in a pair.
"The actual initial design was pretty close to what we wanted," says Gaudio. "But the problem was with the material, so we focused on on a material that would support this mesh-like or sponge-like design."
And as future as that already sounds, the mass-market potential of Futurecraft 3D is much more interesting. Liedtke and Gaudio envision a future where shoes can be customized around the particular shape and dimensions of a person’s foot, which they believe will not only result in better comfort and support for the foot, but will also yield performance gains for runners. It’s not just about customizing for big-time competitive athletes in a multimillion-dollar lab. Futurecraft someday expects to have customers come into an Adidas store, run on a treadmill for a little bit, then take the data and begin printing a custom midsole.
To be able to get to this point, Futurecraft are looking outside the shoe world, at the innovation incubators and open-source culture that powers the startup and technology worlds. Liedtke and Gaudio even went as far as to talk to Google and Pixar for ideas on how to run their group. That said, you’re unlikely to see Futurecraft branding on any widely available Adidas product in the future (it organized and named itself mostly to focus its efforts). What it aims to do—besides behaving like mad scientists—is collaborate with designers, makers, and engineers, and let those people run wild with Adidas’s tools.
"Our ambition is to always be the best sports brand in the world," says Liedtke. "But to do that, we need to turn to partners and externals who can help us fulfill our vision. It’s not so easy to do everything by yourself."
Which is why the company plans to regularly roll out new experiments throughout the year, and let these desired collaborators work in the soon-to-open "creator farms" in Brooklyn and Berlin, and let them tinker with Futurecraft’s established technologies.
On paper, this all sounds great, rolling out a bunch of new innovations that are only semi-accessible in the beginning. But will it make a tangible difference for Adidas as it gears up to challenge the commercial and cultural success of Nike?
On the surface, yes. In recent years, Nike has made a killing rolling out tech-driven innovations in shoes and apparel, such as its Nike Free midsoles, its Flyknit uppers, and its Tech Fleece line of sweats, which offer fitness, performance, and manufacturing benefits to varying degrees. It’s such a priority for Nike that most of its biggest innovations come from HTM, a group made up of Nike CEO Mark Parker, lead designer Tinker Hatfield, and the highly respected Fragment Design founder Hiroshi Fujiwara.
But making cool products and convincing people of their coolness are two very different things. Generally popular in Europe amongst the masses, Adidas has often played second fiddle to Nike with U.S. consumers. But it has seen its cultural cachet rise here over the last few years, especially among the fashion and sneakerhead sets, thanks to collaborations with the likes of Kanye West, Raf Simons, and Yohji Yamamoto.
Presumably, this is why Adidas poached Marc Dolce, Mark Miner, and Denis Dekovic—three of Nike’s highest-profile designers whose departure set off a drama-filled legal battle between the two companies—to help bring that same edge to the rest of Adidas’s product lines.
This, too, is another reason Adidas says it chose Brooklyn and Berlin to launch its creator farms early next year, which will house the Futurecraft group and the aforementioned "Big 3" designers. It’s not only going to allow the two teams to seamlessly collaborate as they see fit, but hopes these two locales—which function as global creative hubs—will entice the respected designers and technologists Adidas desires to come in to play around with a different technologies every month.
"We want to bring some weight behind this, and open up our doors and let them come in, says Liedtke. "We will look at professional creators like Alexander Taylor, who is a furniture designer, but we like how he thinks. And we will look at citizen creators that have a point of view to express. But first we have to have the platform where we’re making a great performance product."
For now, this is all a vision for the near future. While releasing a bevy of innovative new technologies and making them semi-accessible is cool, getting it to market is the ultimate goal.
"We have a lot of work to do, let’s be honest," says Liedtke. "The idea right now is to show what's possible and have people join us. Ideally we would have limited product—and I mean limited—in the summer of 2016."
In the meantime, the team is focused on refining its previous endeavors, and experimenting in the name of discovering other ones.