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The 1980s were a great decade in the sneaker business. Several classics were introduced, including Nike’s Air Jordan 1, worn by the basketball star Michael Jordan, which boosted consumer interest in sneakers. Several giants competed for consumers: Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Reebok… and some more dated brands that didn’t survive into the new millennium.
In 1984, Adidas’ sport-shoe product manager, Bill Mintiens, had become convinced that the combination of shoes and digital technology would be a real winner. Such a product, he thought, would be an instant hit among a specific group of consumers: ”There is a demographic parallel between people interested in computers and people interested in mechanics of fitness – you could call them yuppies”, as he said. Yuppies were short for young, urban professionals, and Mintiens believed they needed computer shoes to measure and display their athletic performance.
It sometimes happens that rival companies get the same idea at more or less the same time – as in this case, Puma, who also entered the race to put a computer shoe on the market. Again, the idea was that the shoe should be able to measure performance: running distance and calories burned. The Puma RS Computer Shoe was launched in 1986 and was promoted with the catchy slogan, “Jog Your Memory”. The shoe operated with a separate disc and was compatible with the Apple II computer, and the Commodore 64 ‘bread bin’.
Prior to running, the user had to enter his or her goals to the disc, and subsequently connect the shoe to the computer with a cable. The runner’s information was then shown in a printable format. In a less than elegant solution, Puma had chosen to place the sensor and the cable sockets in something that looked like an extended box at the back of the shoe. The system was developed by the bio-engineering department at the University of Pennsylvania and had a capacity for a 6-year runner’s log. The creator, Dr. Peter Cavanagh, suggested that software later on would be able to perform other measurements, such as pulse, and even the strain on the body.
But the Puma RS Computer Shoe never made it that far. Even before its launch, Puma’s head of marketing knew that the new shoe would only make up a fraction of their sales. He was right; it did not attract many buyers, and soon disappeared quietly from the market. Maybe it was because of the choice of compatible computers – according to a New York Magazine article, the yuppies of the day didn’t use Apple and Commodore at all; their obvious choice was IBM and Macintosh. Or maybe it was because competitors, Adidas and later, Nike, simply provided better products. But whatever the brand, futurist computer shoes never became a 1980s success.
One last explanation as to why computer shoes did not achieve success is that the internet and social media weren’t available in the 80s, making it less interesting to collect data on athletic performance when they could not easily be shared with others. In any case, the idea of smart shoes has been reborn in the age of the internet – for example, Adidas relaunched a version of their computer shoe, the Micropacer, in 2015.
Today, however, smart shoes are not just about fitness and athletic performance: they are also important for the Internet of Health Things, and there has been a surge of interest in later years. Smart shoes are easy to integrate into your daily life and can collect data about the user in real time that can be used for prevention and monitoring, but also ensure that health professionals make the best choices on the basis of the user’s behaviour and figures. This is in line with Dr. Cavanagh’s original idea of further developing the RS Computer Shoe, so it would be able to measure pulse and level of strain. With that in mind, we may justly say that Puma’s computer shoes were, in many ways, a product ahead of its time, despite the fact that it is practically forgotten today.