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Why Nike Killed “Magneto,” Its Futuristic Eyewear Product

Reinventing eyewear has become all the rage–not just at fashion startups like Warby Parker, but at tech giants like Canon and Google. Nike, too, once considered rethinking the space.

Why Nike Killed “Magneto,” Its Futuristic Eyewear Product
Photo: Courtesy of IDEO / Rick English

Reinventing eyewear has become all the rage–not just at fashion startups like Warby Parker, but at consumer electronic giants like Canon and Olympus. Only recently, Sergey Brin was on stage at TED championing Google Glass, his company’s futuristic eyewear project.

During my reporting for Fast Company‘s profile of Nike, which we just named as the Most Innovative Company in the world, I learned that Nike, too, had once considered reinventing eyewear. Back in the early aughts–years before it dreamed up the FuelBand and Flyknit–Nike’s eyewear concept, internally called “Magneto,” was, briefly, its next big thing. It wasn’t a wearable computer though–the idea, essentially, was to have athletes tape magnets to their temples and then clip futuristic eyewear onto them. It was a novel concept, and would enable Nike’s sports stars to avoid having to wear the bulky headgear (goggles, headbands) that made them look less like basketball players, and more like students in a high school workshop class. “Sometimes ideas are before their time,” says Trevor Edwards, Nike’s VP of global brand management. “Perhaps we went too far with that idea, because we actually started to make it.”

Photo: Courtesy of IDEO / Rick English

In the end, however, Nike CEO Mark Parker decided to kill the project–a decision he credits, in part, to the late Steve Jobs. “Steve [Jobs] had a good bullshit meter, but also an open mind,” Parker says. “It’s that bullshit filter that says, ‘Really? Is this really compelling?’ We kill a lot of ideas. [Magneto] was interesting. It was odd and quirky and we had athletes wearing them in races and whatnot. But I didn’t see that path all the way to, ‘Well, this is going to be real compelling.'”

In Magneto, Parker saw potential, but also many downsides. “Personally, I thought it was a bit impractical,” he says. “I didn’t think consumers would actually get to a point where they were comfortable taping magnets to their head. There were better solutions.”

Says Edwards, “Is the juice worth the squeeze? We worked really hard on this, but at the end of the day, what’s wrong with the current, existing mechanism to hold glasses in place?”

Years later, Nike decided to rethink another wearable product that was worth the squeeze. The FuelBand, Nike’s sleek electronic wristband, has won raves for its elegant design and intuitive user interface. It was inspired in part by another product that, like eyewear, had long been neglected in the athletic world: sweatbands. “In 50 years, no one had done anything with the sweatband–with that real estate of the wrist,” Nike Digital Sport VP Stefan Olander told me. “There must be something there.”

The FuelBand also proved ahead of its time, considering Apple’s supposed interest in developing a so-called iWatch. Indeed, Apple SVP Bob Mansfield is said to be “engrossed” by devices like the Nike FuelBand. Apple CEO Tim Cook was even spotted wearing a FuelBand on stage during the launch of the iPad Mini. (He sits on Nike’s board.)

But if Nike stuck with Magneto, would Cook be wearing magnets instead of his wire-framed spectacles? Not likely. The idea was simply better in concept than it was when actually executed.

“That’s part of the process,” Edwards says. “You have to sometimes green-light things based on the idea, and every now and then something amazing comes out of it. But along the way, there are some other things that come out that are not so amazing.”

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.