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Never Meet Your Heroes, and Never Make Their Gadgets

Marty McFly never had to charge his shoes

Nike/Getty Images
Nike/Getty Images

In March of 2015, I sat in a crowd full of journalists in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as Apple CEO Tim Cook demonstrated the capabilities of the company’s new smartwatch. We all knew the basics — Apple’s militaristic hype cycle meant that the gadget had been officially announced at a similar event in September. But Cook wanted to make sure that we grasped how truly awesome it was. As he demoed its call feature, a boyish smile stretched across his face. “I have been wanting to do this since I was 5 years old!” the 54-year-old man exclaimed, earning laughs from the crowd. “The day is finally here!”

Cook was likely referencing his childhood fascination with comic-book detective Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. Even though some of us in the crowd weren’t alive in the 1960s, we could all relate. We’ve all fantasized about one day using the same gadgets our sci-fi superheroes do: Inspector Gadget’s precarious but ultimately dope helicopter fedora, Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, Marty McFly’s hoverboard — the list of unattainable movie props that the room of reporters had pined over could probably fill an Amazon warehouse.

As long as we’ve dreamed of owning the far-fetched gadgets of fictional spies, companies have been willing to indulge us with products that imitate them with varying degrees of success. The development of Nike’s new “adaptive fit” sneakers — dubbed HyperAdapt 1.0 — is just the most recent example. The shoes are outfitted with a battery, motor, sensor, and cable system that, according to Wired, uses “an algorithmic pressure equation” to adjust its fit around your feet. While the company pretends the shoes have real-world use, they are also directly inspired by the self-lacing Nikes that Marty McFly wears during the year 2015 in Back to the Future Part II. In fact, the two young Nike designers who helped the film’s director come up with a prototype for McFly’s kicks in 1988 are the same employees who, 27 years later, spearheaded the project to develop an actual, commercially viable version.

Whatever their origin story, Nike’s HyperAdapts are indisputable accomplishments in design. To package that many electronics in something the size of a foot and avoid electrocuting/burning its wearer on contact is genuinely impressive! (Especially during a time when our phones are still spontaneously combusting.) To ensure the shoes don’t look like L.A. Lights is also a huge relief. And though I’m fairly certain most people over the age of 5 have no trouble tying their shoelaces, the offer to wear a foot glove that comes “alive” is about as tantalizing as a Magic Mike threequel. I do not think it will be meaningful, but I am very, very down.

All that said, the HyperAdapts — like many fantastical gadgets from the movies — don’t seem to exist to solve any actual problems. Which is fine: It’s OK to make Marty McFly’s sneakers just to make Marty McFly’s sneakers. But Nike did a sort of dance trying to explain their real-world application. “Here’s a thing that I believe, and I think it’s been scientifically proven: If your feet are not healthy, there’s kind of a chain reaction, and your entire body can get out of whack,” Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s vice president of creative concepts, told Wired, offering the example of NBA players. “If you’re playing for three hours, there might be only an hour of it when you actually need your sneakers tight. The rest of the time, when you’re standing around for free throws, jump balls, sitting on the bench, you should loosen your shoes up.” This is a thing that Hatfield says they don’t do, so “they’re torturing their feet, and they’re becoming less and less healthy.”

Hatfield’s logic evokes at least a few thinking-face emoji. Yes, the general imperfection of a shoe’s fit could cause an injury, but never in the history of a sport has an athlete been sidelined due to “overly snug sneakers.” The company isn’t addressing any urgent complaint from the sports medicine community, and even if designers did force a bunch of athletes to CrossFit the hell out of the shoes within its internal Nike Sport Research lab, the feedback they received was largely qualitative. So, as beneficial as it is for Nike executives to emphasize the athletic function of what will likely be very expensive self-lacing shoes, they are ultimately a moonshot for the sake of being a moonshot. They are Marty McFly’s Nike Mags, reincarnated just a year after when Back to the Future Part II promised they would be. (Only, unlike McFly, you have to charge them for three hours every two weeks.)

Though we’ll have to wait until the holidays to see whether the HyperAdapt 1.0s can live up to their silver-screen counterparts, they are preceded by a lot of “meh” entries in this category. In the past few years, companies like Lexus, Hendo, and Omni Hoverboards have attempted to construct a version of McFly’s enviable floating board, but their products all come with caveats that make it generally impossible for the everyday use we’re after. (Even Tony Hawk can barely grind on one.) Some have even theorized that the desire to emulate the Back to the Future Part II prop has limited progress in the area. “We’ve noticed that with the design of other hoverboards that have been done so far by Lexus and Hendo, they’ve created a hoverboard that looks exactly like the one in the movie,” Omni Hoverboards CEO Philippe Maalouf told The New York Times last year. “But when it comes to usability, it doesn’t work like the one in the movie. It’s like a banana peel.” The laws of physics are definitely part of why we don’t have a hoverboard yet, but maybe so are the limited imaginations of the designers whose minds are clouded with special effects from ’80s sci-fi flicks.

Even when scientists are able to replicate on-set magic, the real-life application tends to be much more muted and sobering. Take, for instance, the work of the researchers at UC Berkeley, who recently developed a “thin metamaterial” that can “conform to irregularly shaped objects and render them invisible in certain wavelengths of light.” The invention of an invisibility cloak is, in theory, very exciting. But two things make it less so: (1) The proof of concept was only able to cover about 1,300 square microns, which I’m assuming is the size of like, a single Kristin Chenoweth eyelash, and (2) Have you ever thought about what kind of haywire shit would go down if people owned invisibility cloaks? Could anyone own one? Even Anthony Weiner? An invisibility cloak is fun to imagine when it is exclusively used by a cute British wizard who needs to lurk around a castle to save the universe from an evil death lord. Not so much when the perpetually shirtless guy in your building who reeks of onions gets one, too.

We are obsessed with the entertainment industry’s inventive set props because they exist in a world unencumbered by splintering charging cables, weak Wi-Fi signals, and monotonous desk jobs. In the real world, the Apple Watch is not a sly way for detectives to communicate top-secret information, but a new thing people can shout at to locate the closest Starbucks. Yes, I’ll admit I’m being a bit of a killjoy, but it’s really just because I expected — and was sold on — more fun. It seems the future promised us a magical world of time machines, hoverboards, and flying cars, and all we got was a wrist computer that reminds us to breathe and some self-lacing shoes.