From Customized Shoes To Interactive Gaming, Nike Scores With Record High In Patent Grants in 2016

Nike won a record high of over 690 patent approvals in 2016, partially driven by a major expansion of patent applications the previous year. For a retail brand, Nike has been active in the tech sector over the years, collaborating with Apple, launching various wearable apps and devices, and making private market investments in artificial intelligence (via startup Reflektion) and supply chain optimization (via startup Llamasoft).

Based on this activity, we used CB Insights’ patent database to dig into some of Nike’s recent granted patents, which may indicate future strategic moves by the company. The patents run the gamut from customizable shoes to AR-based exercise enhancements.

Patent activity over time

Nike increased its rate of patent applications from 272 in 2009 to 714 in 2013, while it received more and more patent grants every year throughout that period as well. Patent grants slipped in 2014 and 2015, before jumping to an all-time high of 691 in 2016.

At the same time, 2016 saw Nike’s first acquisition since 2007 — the company acquired Virgin Mega, a mobile app to support fan engagement in advance of new product releases.

Note: The patent filing process involves a significant time-lag before the publishing of patent applications. This delay can range from several months to over two years, meaning that records prior to 2013 are likely complete at the time of analysis, but there may be applications from 2014 on that have yet to be published.

Patent analysis

Many of Nike’s patents focus on designs for footwear, apparel, and accessories — golf clubs, footwear soles, and air bladders for use inside shoes are especially frequent topics. On the tech side, Nike’s patents include biometric sensors, fitness tracking platforms, and product customization, along with several discussing augmented reality and gaming.

Fitness sensors and activity tracking

Nike holds patents on methods to track activity through wearable devices, mobile phones, and sensors inside footwear. From the footwear angle, Nike has patented systems such as Footwear Having Sensor System, which can track pressure on the shoe, and Footwear Products Including Data Transmission Capabilities, which the patent says can transmit users’ workout data to a smartphone or other display system, track users’ locations, and activate targeted, proximity advertising. See images from the two below.

In 2016, Nike also received several patents related to wearable fitness trackers, mainly armbands. Many of these likely trace their origin to Nike’s FuelBand wearable program, which Nike shuttered in 2014. On top of hardware sensing devices, more patents relate to data analysis, such as systems to calculate energy expenditure, programs to identify the type of activity in which the user is engaged, systems to calculate user “flight time,” when both feet are off the ground, and methods for “scoring” users’ fitness levels.

Product manufacturing and customization

Based on its private market activity, Nike clearly prioritizes supply chain improvements, and in 2016 the company received several patents related to automated sneaker production. However, it also patented ways to allow more user input into the production process.

One patent looks at a website interface to allow shopper customization of footwear, apparel, and accessories. Another patent enables customization once the shoe is in the store — a portion of the shoe would be designed to change shape under steam, and it would be sold with an accompanying steam bag. Consumers could steam the shoe, and then put in their foot to mold and adjust the shoe for custom fit. See the process in a chronological assembly of images from the patent below.

Entertainment and gaming

In 2012 Nike filed two patents (both granted in 2016) related to interactive, fitness-focused gaming. The first, Interactive Gaming Apparel for Interactive Gaming, describes apparel marked with reflective materials that can be monitored by a camera, so that gaming systems with cameras can track user activity, shown below.

The second, Virtual Performance System, is a patent for an electronic game with user avatars, which gives players rewards inside the game based on physical activity in the real world, as shown below. Even earlier (filed in 2008, granted in 2014) Nike patented a system of avatars used in virtual social networks. Most recently in this area, in December 2016 Nike applied for a patent (not yet granted) for use of augmented reality to enhance exercise routines.