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When a Nike spokeswoman said it took the company more than 20 years to create the latest technology for its new Air Max 360 running shoe, the first question we asked was, “What took so long?”

When a Nike spokeswoman said it took the company more than 20 years to create the latest technology for its new Air Max 360 running shoe, the first question we asked was, “What took so long?”

Well, it turns out Air Max technology has been available to consumers for a long time–just not in this dramatic of a fashion, according to Nike. The new Air Max 360s feature a midsole made from 65 layers of microfilm, which encapsulate nitrogen to simulate walking–or running–on air.

“This shoe is what many of us imagined years ago, but getting there was more challenging than we expected,” says Tom Hartge, creative director for advanced research and development at Nike. “It took us many generations to figure out how to work with it. But now what’s happening is that people are trying it on and wondering, ‘Wow, what is this?’ ”

What it is, is smart marketing.

We live in a world where consumers line up to get the latest and greatest that innovation has to offer. And though the word “technology” usually brings to mind computers and miniature cell phones, it also applies to footwear.

At one time, our athletic kicks were reserved for just that–bouncing around on the basketball court or running on a track. But now, sneakers do a lot more than simply provide protection for our feet. New models can “sense an athlete’s needs” with computers implanted in the soles, keep feet from getting too sweaty with microholes or even keep a person “in balance” with strategically placed magnets. And if all else fails, at least they look cool. It’s all part of the package shoemakers are offering to lure consumers. And apparently it’s working.

According to NPD Group, a research firm, Nike’s introduction of the Air Max 360 in January of 2006 spurred a sudden interest from consumers. Since their launch, running shoes, an industry that generated $4.2 million in revenue in 2006 but has been stagnant in recent years, has seen growth that NPD estimates at between 11% and 20%.

“The first week that Nike launched the Air Max 360s, it was the No. 17 best-selling running shoe–without it being sold in every store. By the second week, it was number six,” says Marshal Cohen of NPD Group. “So this wasn’t just good for the style but good for the brand and the category.”

Last year, adidas introduced the first running shoe to feature a computerised motor in the sole with the adidas_1. The computer is designed to sense the amount of cushioning a person needs with each step, depending on weight, surface and pace, and adjust the shoe accordingly. Since then, the sneaker has been upgraded, and the company has launched a new adidas_1 basketball shoe.

Even more specialised athletic-wear companies, such as Brooks Sports, which makes products popular with avid runners, are setting tech trends. Talk about a silver lining–their newest lines of apparel and sneakers feature the precious metal.

“Utilizing silver’s natural properties, our HVAC running shoes transfer heat away from the foot and out of the shoe to help prevent overheating and hot spots, which often cause blisters,” says Pete Humphrey, vice president of footwear research and development at Brooks. “And as a side benefit, silver’s natural antimicrobial properties help prevent odor-causing bacteria buildup.”

European sneaker maker Puma is also following the technology trail. The Chapora sneaker from the company’s Nuala collection, created for yoga enthusiasts, contains magnets in its soles for spiritual balance and holistic benefits. The company’s Fase Thermo from their 96 Hours collection contains a material in the lining that reacts to temperature fluctuations.

To find out which new and newfangled shoes work for you, check out our list of high-tech sneakers. But be quick. Technology changes fast, and if you don’t follow, your shoes might just be considered retro. And that is a whole other trend.

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