Critique: Augmented Adidas

Adidas is describing its newest line of shoes as “the first augmented reality experience in footwear.” To the AR uninitiated, that phrase sounds a bit clunky. How about “the first line of footwear that speaks in tongues?”

More precisely, it’s the first line of sneakers with a coded tongue. Hold up one of the sneakers with its AR-embedded label to a Webcam, and voila — you’re invited into a private, urban, celebrity-and-game-filled virtual world, the Adidas Originals Neighborhood. The first game, based on the Adidas Star Wars collection (created in collaboration with Lucasfilm), debuted in early February, and two more will roll out throughout the spring and summer under the Adidas theme line, “Celebrate originality.”

The AR shoes look original. They come in five eye-stopping bright hues, and range in price from under $70 to $99. But what’s really unique, of course, is that each sneaker is wearable and playable. Just as important, they become the controllers for all three games.

I was raised in the day of the jokey “shoe phone,” a product from the Get Smart TV show. So, I find the idea of any sort of casual-footwear-based communication or game playing inherently hilarious. But the shoe’s target consumer, a 17-year-old boy, will probably find the experience kind of cool. He’ll be able to tilt, turn and generally move his big sneak around without finding this sort of shoe-based gaming, well, gamey. (The Adidas AR Originals campaign was created by Sid Lee in Montreal and Amsterdam.)

Just a couple of months ago, augmented reality was the next big thing. In the warp speed of Web time, now it is the big thing. The December issue of Esquire magazine was in the vanguard, featuring an AR code on its cover. Readers could download software from the Esquire site and watch an exclusive video, among other things.

The Adidas technology has a next-stage advantage in that the user can go straight to the games without downloading anything.

Adidas has promoted its virtual 3-D world with localized events (advertised on Facebook) in the real 3-D world. The Feb. 4 launch of the Star Wars game in New York, for instance, included a reenactment of “The Imperial March,” with Darth Vader leading a bunch of Stormtroopers and other assembled bad guys through Times Square. Snoop Dogg even showed up to lend an extra bad influence to the affair, and the whole thing attained the kind of attention-getting mega-geekiness that you just can’t make up. The parade eventually stopped at a Foot Locker.

The Star Wars game itself is pretty basic: You fire blue paint balloons at Stormtroopers, who duck in and out of buildings. You try to hit them more than they hit you. The second game, launching in March, offers a skateboarding experience through a gritty downtown 3-D neighborhood, complete with tricks, pitfalls, creepy people and an oversized robot. The extreme-sports idea would seem to work better in terms of theme, considering Adidas’ actual skate history.

The third and final game, to be released in April, seems the most innovative in that it’s based on an interaction with sound. Kids can become their own DJs and create their own beats.

Based on the number of points they earn in each game, players will also be able to download AR-generated “trophies” and become eligible to win larger prizes.

Kids might even want more than one pair of shoes, to separate the playing from the (sometimes smelly and dirty) wearing.

This will never be another Nike Plus, as there isn’t any practical application. But it’s aimed at a younger audience, and it sure expands the range of user experience and possible emotional connections to the brand. It also redefines the idea of advertising.