Google and adidas made a smart football insole. But there’s a flaw

In December 2017, adidas shuttered its Digital Sports unit responsible for developing wearable tech. After seven years of building MiCoach running watches and fitness trackers, a heart-rate monitor and even connected football boots, the sportswear giant had decided that fitness hardware wasn’t paying off.

Adidas never said it was leaving the space for good, though, instead shifting its focus to software, including the recently acquired running app Runtastic. Now, with wearable tech having shaken off its ‘gimmick’ image, largely thanks to the Apple Watch and AirPods, adidas has decided to come back out of the wilderness. Its first connected sports product in over two years is a pair of smart insoles designed for football and powered by Google’s Jacquard technology.

Unlike the connected football boots it launched almost ten years ago, the adidas GMR insoles are EVA foam insoles designed to sit inside of any footwear. They cost just £29.95 and use the same Jacquard Tag as Google’s previous collaborations, Levi’s Trucker denim jacket and a YSL backpack.

The tag is placed inside of the insole of your dominant foot. It’s trained by artificial intelligence (and humans with the right football knowledge) to track player movement and actions like kicks, shot power, distinguish between passing and shooting, distance covered and peak speed. EA Sports completes this football collaboration triumvirate in allowing users to take that physical performance data to unlock rewards in FIFA Mobile to help beef up your “Ultimate Team”.

However, in a bafflingly limiting move, you’re not allowed to engage with your football stats any other way. Scott Zalaznik, senior vice president of adidas’s digital division since 2018, told us that right now adidas GMR is “purely focused on integration with EA Sports FIFA Mobile” but that its customers’ feedback and experience will “play a big role in shaping the direction” of the product.

The concept of putting sensors near your feet isn’t new to adidas. Its Speed Cell sensor was designed to record workout metrics for the likes of football, tennis and basketball. That setup used motion sensors to capture 360 degree movement measuring metrics like speed, distance, stride rates, distance at high intensity levels and steps and the user could dig into that data.

That’s not the case with the GMR insoles, aside from fuelling your Ultimate Team progress, which raises questions about the accuracy of the tracking and the Jacquard algorithms at play here if they aren’t being shared to the user. If Google’s algorithms could be trained to address form or technique, say, it could have real benefits more far reaching than unlocking features in a mobile game. The issue isn’t the FIFA Mobile tie-in, it’s the fact it’s the only option.

Zalaznik’s explanation is that the existing audience of people who play FIFA Mobile are “the perfect starting point” for a product that is looking to “gamify performance data.” He argues that it isn’t a case of the tag not being able to provide this kind of feedback: “There aren’t limitations to adidas GMR, instead we’ve channeled the data into what we think will be the most intuitive and seamless experience for users that they will come back to again and again.”

As well as the evident enthusiasm for the game tie-in, there’s a chance that either adidas has been burned by its previous attempts in this space or the EA partnership, and the resulting FIFA Mobile exclusive, was key to getting the whole project off the ground.

The Jacquard platform itself is still finding its place. Developed by Google’s in-house tech incubator ATAP, the vision for Jacquard was initially pitched in 2015 as a solution to finally bring smart garments to the masses. Every year since, analysts have pointed to massive growth for the smart clothing industry, but it simply hasn’t materialised. Since then, we’ve seen Jacquard live inside two generations of Levi’s smart jacket, the most recent being 2019’s £140 Commuter jacket and fitted inside of a YSL backpack that costs £700. Neither Levi’s or YSL have revealed how many Jacquard-packed garments and accessories they’ve sold to date – the Jacquard app has 5,000 plus installs on the Google Play Store – and the applications of the tech remain niche.

The same could similarly be said about the adidas GMR insoles. When Jacquard was first announced, as “a raw material that will make computation a part of the language which apparel designers and textile designers and fashion designers speak” you’d perhaps expect a whole range of sports and everyday activities to be catered for with a range of lifestyle partners by this point, five years later. That said, they are available at a much more attractive and affordable price point than Levi’s and YSL’s Jacquard offerings with a much larger potential audience. They’re also getting a wide international release with adidas confirming the GMR insoles will be stocked in “select stores” in the UK, Europe, US, Japan and beyond. The move into sports tracking, too, is significant for Jacquard.

Zalaznik said adidas was the first to suggest to Google and EA Sports this idea of connecting the physical world of football to the gaming world. “We were getting feedback from athletes that were going to the pitch and then after they’d go to home and they’d be gaming,” says Zalaznik.

Adidas approached Google when ATAP was working on launching its first connected product, the Levi’s Commuter Trucker smart jacket. That would put initial talks around the time adidas was seemingly moving away from the wearable tech space. Ivan Poupyrev, the director of engineering at Google on Jacquard, says it was right in the middle of reengineering the Jacquard platform to make improvements. Moving that platform to the shoe posed obvious challenges which affected the first commercial version of the tag. “We challenged ourselves on the size of this thing and how it fits in the shoe,” he says. “To make sure it was reliable, that the thickness was right to withstand and absorb the impact of movement and pressure.”

The GMR insoles use the same Jacquard Tag hardware that was used in the Levi’s jackets and YSL’s smart backpack. That means the tag is packed with the same motion sensors to measure acceleration and angular rotations, and relays the data to the companion adidas GMR smartphone app via Bluetooth. There were factors Google had to consider when moving this tag to the feet and designing it for the kind of movement associated with football. It had to think about the power consumption to ensure users could play one or two matches without needing to charge it. According to adidas, you can expect to use the tag and insoles for three 90-minute matches before they need charging.

Key to its suitability was building a machine-learning platform well equipped to recognise the kinds of foot and body movements made by footballers. The initial data that Google captured was uploaded to the cloud where it would be crunched by adidas’s sports scientists to help create the specific challenges that unlock the rewards in FIFA Mobile.

Google collected a huge amount of motion data from a range of footballers in order to train the thousands of neural networks required to interpret and analyse movements to such a sophisticated level. For Google’s purposes, the data collected by the tag, which can be used to pick up fast turns and estimate the speed of the ball, isn’t tied to individual players.

If there’s any company in a good place to collect large amounts of data, it’s Google. The responsibility of analysing human movement hasn’t been left to the Jacquard Tag makers though. “The level of testing on the pitch was pretty elevated on the adidas side, says Zalaznik. “We had over a thousand different players from all types. From professionals to kids to everything in the middle.” EA also felt physical testing was crucial to make the insoles and FIFA Mobile integration work correctly.

So how does that FIFA Mobile integration actually play out? The mobile game, Matt Lafreniere, mobile producer at EA Sports explains, is driven around bolstering your Ultimate Team, arguably the game’s most popular mode. In a bid to help you build the best team you can, EA Sports has created a season-long live event that once you’ve connected to your GMR insoles will give you weekly FIFA Mobile challenges that require that you get outside and have an actual game of football.

It’ll ask you to kick the ball ‘X’ amount of times or run a certain distance in a match. Complete those challenges each week and you’ll earn rewards that you can use to apply to your Ultimate Team. These could be coins to buy packs, level players up, earn skill boosts. “We’ll do some exclusive content as well. So, a special Dybala 95 you can drop into your Ultimate Team,” says Lafreniere. You can also expect features like social leaderboards for showing off who’s covered the most distance on the pitch or kicking the ball the most. Will players be able to trick Google’s algorithms in the manner of putting a fitness tracker on a pet? “Precautions have been taken to prevent or complicate any potential tinkering or hacking to trick it into thinking you’ve been out playing football,” warns Zalaznik.

The move to make this play nice with the mobile game as opposed to the console version of EA Sport’s FIFA game is an intriguing one. Lafreniere says FIFA Mobile has been installed hundreds of millions of times. The console version of the game hit ten million players late last year, though, so there’s certainly an argument to be made for it coming to that version in future. “For us in the beginning, mobile made the most sense. Trying to make this accessible to more people,” he says. “For right now, it makes sense for the FIFA Mobile ecosystem.”

This idea of making it accessible is something echoed on the adidas side on deciding to make insoles and not put this tech into a pair of boots. It wanted to maximise the number of people that could make use of the insoles, considering the costs of putting them in boots compared to making an insole and that ability to reach all types of players. “This could be an introduction for a gamer to get into football,” says Zalaznik.

The adidas VP also says that he is personally interested in investing more in wearable tech and doesn’t believe that this idea of merging the physical and digital worlds is a one off. There’s a feeling that a whole range of sports could benefit from something like this, but adidas wants to really get football right first. It’s a similar story from the EA side. Get football right and think about how the tech could apply to other games.

While this isn’t adidas’s first foray into connected football kit, it is for Google, though it doesn’t mean Jacquard is just meant for the beautiful game. Poupyrev talks about Jacquard and the platform as fitting its vision of ambient computing. The kind of computing that can help you all the time and not just when you use it directly. It’s a platform that Google is designing and refining to allow a variety of objects and accessories to become connected or smart and intelligent in the background.

“I think it’s important to re-emphasise that Jacquard is not about the jacket or the backpack or the shoe,” he says. “We believe the use of technology goes beyond shoes or sports or jackets. We are constantly discussing internally, as a team, the variety of things we can do with Jacquard, expanding that beyond things you wear, looking at other objects around you like furniture and industrial equipment. I don’t think there is one single use case, which is ‘the’ use case. It’s exciting to see adidas back playing in the tech space. It’s had mixed success so far, but in many ways it has achieved more than its closest rivals, such as Under Armour which made big noises about innovating in the same way.

And as for Jacquard, this is just the third concrete application of the technology and, with this £30 price point and – in theory – wide appeal to various cohorts of football fans, it’s the first real test to see if the platform can take off in a meaningful or even groundbreaking way.

Yet, even though engaging with the 85 million or so users of FIFA Mobile seems like a vast market on which to test this new application of the Jacquard Tag, we can’t but help think of a wider opportunity missed, or at least untapped. If Google and adidas unlocked all that valuable player data inside the mobile game and opening it up to the 265 million people globally that play football, this could finally – after years of trying – take connected clothing mainstream.

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