As It Happens

Puma brings back fitness-tracking shoe considered 'useless' in 1986

Peter Cavanagh designed Puma's 1986 RS-Computer Shoe. It tracked distance, pace, and caloric cost — much like fitness trackers today.

'I personally feel very pleased that in 1986 we thought that fitness tracking was a good idea,' says designer

Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum has Puma's 1986 RS-Computer Shoe in its collection. They cost $200 at the time, and also came with a 46-page user's manual. (Provided by Bata Shoe Museum)
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Transcript

In 1986, there was nothing else like it in the footwear world. Puma's RS-Computer Shoe was essentially a Fitbit — before fitness trackers were even a thing.

Too bad nobody wanted to buy a pair. 

The $200 sneakers, that came with a 46-page user's manual, didn't sell, says the shoe's designer Peter Cavanagh. 

But now, Puma has decided to re-release their Computer Shoe as a limited edition — and Cavanagh says he's delighted.

I was right, but the timing wasn't.- Peter Cavanagh , shoe designer

Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What did [this computer shoe] look like?  

It has got a bump on the back of the shoe that contained the electronics … There's only electronics on the right side, but for balance there's [a bump] on the left side too.  

It looks kind of retro and sleek at the same time. But I'm biased, of course, because I used to like it.

Puma's 1986 RS-Computer Shoe could track how far a user ran, but the shoe's designer says people didn't think information like that was necessary at the time. (Provided by Bata Shoe Museum)

Describe how it was intended to be used.  

At the time, people said, "Why would you want to know how far you run?" — which is what the shoe would do for you.

It would tell you what your pace was. It would tell you what your caloric cost was.

People would ask me all the time, "Why on Earth would you need to know that?"

I would say to them, "Well, when the Model T Ford first came out there was no odometer on it because people said why would you need to know how far you drive."  

Of course, here we are today, when most serious fitness buffs … won't leave the home without a very elaborate personal fitness tracker that's going to tell them everything about their run.

I was right, but the timing wasn't.

 

The thing that slays me is to see that Commodore 64 desktop that you'd attach it to. What would happen when you came home and you plugged this into your computer?

It would do exactly the same things that your fitness trackers do today. It would add the run to your log. It would tell you how far it was.  

It would tell you how much you've done for the week … the month … and how much you still need to do to reach your goals.

At the time it seemed radical and useless, and then today it's important and indispensable.

But there was no GPS?

GPS was not a part of it.

What we did is the user would do a calibration run and we would have them type that into the computer. So we would be able to know what speed they were running based on the time between their foot strikes.

It would compare that in a regression curve and be able to calculate a pretty good estimate of what the running distance had been.

Did you, and did others, feel at the time that you'd tapped into something groundbreaking?

Nobody did.

Part of the issue was that Puma marketed it for $200. Running Magazine at the time said nobody, however rich, should pay a hundred dollars for a pair of running shoes — you know, those were the days.

I think it was just, running was not so widespread. People weren't so concerned about every detail … counting every heartbeat that they do in their exercise program.

Peter Cavanagh lives in Washington state. (Provided by Peter Cavanagh)

These new ones that Puma is bringing out, how different are they from your original ones?

They look identical.

The ones that they're bringing are slightly different, of course, in the electronics. 

People are probably going to be getting them for the look because there's going to be only 86 buyers in the whole world.

What will they sell for?

I don't know the answer to that … I'm sure it's going to be more than the original price of $200.

Do you think you're owed a little bit of credit here?

I'm really not looking for credit. I personally feel very pleased that in 1986 we thought that fitness tracking was a good idea.

For me, it's really confirmation rather than looking for credit.

Written by Katie Geleff. Interview with Peter Cavanagh produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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