Maxwell Smart would have had little use for the Puma RS Computer Shoe ($200) because there is no phone concealed in it. James Bond might have looked cursorily at it; without secret compartments for oil and tacks it would be worthless against assassins in hot pursuit.
Nonetheless, when a real-life, responsible citizen like Puma product manager Paul Oparowski declares, straight-faced and with the conviction of an evangelist, that "This is the most exciting development in shoe technology ever," your curiosity is piqued.
Oparowski uttered this hyperbole last month, high over Fifth Avenue in New York City. Several dozen reporters had gathered at the University Club to meet the RS, the revolutionary, thinking shoe that measures time, counts calories, computes mileage and glows in the dark. The sneaker preview took place in the Council Room on the seventh floor, one of just a few places where women are allowed. This Victorian setting made more appropriate, somehow, the news that Puma has no plans to market the RS in women's sizes.
On display, the striped, streamlined and eye-pleasing RS looks like just another $90 running shoe—until one glimpses a ridge protruding from the heel. To the shoe's architect, Dr. Peter Cavanagh, this bulge is the shoe's crowning feature. Cavanagh, a sub-2:45 marathoner of monkish aspect, is Puma's running adviser and a professor of biomechanics at Penn State. He explained that the RS's right heel houses "a critical piece of technology" called the gate array (rhymes with the beverage, almost); 600 transistors on tiny grids, powered by two hearing-aid batteries. During a workout the gate array dutifully records and stores each impact.
After a run, plug the shoe into your computer. You do own one, no? To gain access to all the data stored in the RS's memory you'll need a Commodore 64 or Apple IIe. Discouraged? Cheer up! Pricing a home computer can make the purchase of a $200 pair of sneakers seem like high thrift.
A connector cable and floppy disk come in the shoe box. "To input this information onto the software," Cavanagh said, "all you'll need is this piece of cable. No circuit interface is required." The doctor mercilessly conscripted nouns into service as verbs all morning while peppering his remarks with the staples of computerese: interfacing, compatibility, user friendliness.
By "interrogating" the gate array and recalling data about your particular running style (this has been fed onto the disk earlier), the computer figures out how far you've run, how many calories you've burned and generally how smug you can afford to feel.
The RS's most gratifying capability? The one enabling it to store numbers and conjure them up later as "attractive color graphs and charts." Owners need only link shoe to computer and press a button to come up with cumulative mileage for the month. Crack open a mineral water, put your feet up and watch the line graph develop on the display screen. Reflect soberly on the hardship and discipline that earned these decorative graphics. Bask secretly in your virtue. What could be more satisfying?
For a comparison of your monthly distance goal to the actual distance run—careful folks, this can be a downer—you might prefer the hard-hitting image of a bar graph. Consult the main menu, depress a key, there it is. The same goes for totaling your caloric expenditure from running. Fourteen thousand calories this month alone? Have another piece of marble cake.
Seeing the fruits of your labor displayed on a screen should help you accept the fact that, at considerable savings, you might have kept the same charts on graph paper taped (onput?) to your refrigerator. If it doesn't, consider yet another invaluable amenity. The shoe can be programmed to beep a signal after a given number of impacts, or miles. This will aid those who are poor judges of distance, as well as absentminded runners and those fearful of overtraining. Should the alarm find such runners a great distance from home, however, they're on their own.
But perhaps not for long. As they say at Puma, "Now that we've linked running technology with computer technology, there's no telling how far we'll go."
First things first, then. Let's get a phone in the shoe.