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Wearable Tech

What it's like wearing Nike's $350 self-lacing Adapt BB sneakers

Technology created a perfect fit, but good luck trying to kill off $2 shoelaces.

A pair of Nike's self-lacing Adapt BB sneakers.

A close-up look at the Adapt BBs.

Alfred Ng/CNET

I don't have a fairy godmother fashioning magic glass slippers that fit me perfectly, but Nike's self-lacing Adapt BB shoes come pretty damn close.

The new $350 "smart sneakers," set for release Feb. 17, re-create the magical Back to the Future moment when Marty McFly tries on self-lacing Air Mags and exclaims, "Power laces. All right!"

And though Nike has pulled off this trick before -- first with the special-edition Nike Mag for Michael J. Fox's charity, then with the $720 HyperAdapt 1.0 -- this is the first time it's doing so at a price that's at least somewhat approachable for those of us who don't pay thousands just for the chance to buy sneakers. At the same time, Nike could be changing how we tighten our shoes, at least down the line.

I had a chance to test the Adapt BB sneaks for about 30 minutes at the shoe giant's headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

So, about those laces.

You control them through an app -- because nowadays, you control everything with an app. But if you don't want to use your phone, there are two buttons on the sides. The button closer to your heel loosens the shoe, while the other one tightens it. You hold the loosen button for two seconds to get your sneaker completely relaxed.

The shoes tighten themselves using a small motor connected to laces on the inside.

The interface on the Nike app is pretty simple: an L and an R on the screen, for your left and right foot. The app's also where you'll see the battery life left in your shoes -- yes, that does sound like a ridiculous statement -- and control the color of the sneakers' lights.

On the app, you swipe up and down to adjust the tightness, and you can save settings for different situations, such as running outside or sitting at a desk. Nike said it'll regularly release updates to the app with more features.

"Going forward in the future, the app will be that bridge to the powered athlete," said Jordan Rice, Nike's director of Smart Systems engineering, envisioning wearables offering an athlete tips on how to run or play basketball more effectively.

Fit check

When you first get the sneakers, you set them up with the app, and the shoes adjust to tell you what your ideal fit is.

At its tightest settings, the Adapt BB feels like a shoe that's aggressively hugging your foot. I wouldn't recommend this setting unless you're about to do some extreme physical activity and need to guarantee your shoe won't come loose.

At its most relaxed, it's still pretty snug -- loose enough to take off by pressing at the heel, but not so lose that you could just kick off the shoe. There's a whirring noise each time you adjust the laces, and it makes you feel like you're wearing a machine.

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You control the laces either with two buttons on the side or with an app on your phone.

Ariel Nunez/CNET

The sneakers are good enough for running, dunking a basketball and doing flips. It's nice to be able to let the sneakers loose when you want to sit down and give your feet a break, and tense them up again when you need to run a few laps.

I'd recommend sizing up on the Adapt BBs. I tried on a pair that was true to size, and the shoes were uncomfortably tight, even at the loosest settings. With any other sneaker, going a whole size up would mean I'd have to get new laces to make them tighter, but with the Adapt BBs, it felt like a perfect fit after adjusting on the app.

I can see the need to charge up sneakers becoming a hassle no one asked for, but Nike says a single charge of four hours could last you 10 to 14 days. You charge the shoes by placing them on a Qi mat that comes with the sneakers. During my  hands-on experience, it worked pretty well.

Even though there's a computer inside, the shoes felt light. The computer behind the self-tying shoes, hidden inside the sole, is about the size of an AirPods case. While trying on the sneakers, I forgot it was even there.

Shoo, laces

I watched several people soaring to dunk basketballs while wearing these shoes. After several failed attempts, I remembered that I've never been able to dunk a basketball.

Instead, I tested the Adapt BBs the only other way I knew how: unnecessary acrobatics.  

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I landed a few front flips while wearing the unreleased sneaker, hoping I wouldn't accidentally crush the computer inside. I had more control when the Adapt BBs were at their tightest setting, giving me more grip on the shoes to jump -- and the sneakers were light enough that I could flip effortlessly. The cushioning kept the computer safe, too.

But my final impression after taking off the tech-powered sneakers was that this could never completely replace shoelaces -- they don't need an app for control, they don't need a small computer, motor and battery to function, and they don't cost hundreds of dollars.

Nike's vice president of innovation, Michael Donaghu, talked down shoelaces in a blog post, saying they "had a good run," pointing out how frustrating it is when shoelaces come undone and how you constantly have to tie them again.  

But I'd much rather tie my shoelaces four or five times a day than find out I can't wear my sneakers one morning because I hadn't charged them for two weeks.

Not to mention that as a security reporter, I have concerns about privacy and the potential for a hacker to keep me locked in my shoes unless I pay a ransom.

Hopefully, as technology develops, battery life will be less of a concern for Nike's smart sneakers -- and everything else, for that matter. That's the inevitable future that Eric Avar, a creative director at Nike, believes will come.

"As technology gets more powerful, smaller, more efficient, I think it's just going to continue to unlock new performance opportunities that we have," Avar said.

The technology is cool, but I don't think it'll reach mass adoption over shoelaces until it solves for battery life and price.

Once it gets cheap enough, I can see this going in more fashion-focused Nike sneakers, not just expensive, high-performance footwear for NBA stars. Avar said it was definitely possible to see self-tying shoelaces on other Nike models.

Hell, put them on the iconic Air Monarch dad shoes.

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