Solving a complex problem for adidas with emerging tech

If you live in LA or are a fan of the latest in limited edition sneakers, chances are you’ve heard of ComplexCon — Complex magazine’s (in)famous 2-day future-festival in Long Beach, CA.

The event is a world in and of itself, featuring everything from sport to style, innovation to education and a celebrity presence that could give Coachella a run for its money. As the tagline of the event goes: ‘Whatever happens next… Happens here!’.

One of the most popular attractions at the convention is the ‘sneaker drop’, where major shoe brands create and release one-off exclusives for the event. These drops happen throughout the day, with the shoes themselves being limited releases often endorsed by performers or affiliates of ComplexCon.

Historically, the sneaker drop has had only one problem: it’s just too damn popular.

Picture aggravated hypebeasts, lines longer than at the DMV, scuffles and scenes that resemble Walmart on Black Friday. There are numerous war stories from last ComplexCon where people ended up missing performances purely because they were waiting in line to grab a particular new limited edition sneaker.

So with that in mind, we teamed up with adidas Originals to create an automated purchase system with the aim of fully democratizing their sneaker drops.

No more queues. No more fights. No more missed performances.

It turns out that whatever happens next really does happen at ComplexCon.

Here’s how we did it.

Reinventing the Reveal

The best innovations always start with a thorny problem. Luckily, we had the perfect one — the chaos that is the sneaker drop.

While ‘first come, first served’ generally works as a democratic solution, the combined issues of resellers gaming the system and the sheer amount of hypebeasts meant that we needed a solution as unique as the problem that demanded it.

Our problem solving process kicked off by creating a holistic overview of what needed to change in order to streamline the drop:

- Eliminate lines and wait times

- Ensure a secure product purchase

- Provide consumers with equal opportunity to receive the product at launch

We noted that the major issue was with the user experience, so the task at hand was to create a frictionless user flow from identifying the type of product being dropped, through to buying and receiving it.

Reinventing the UX of adidas Originals’ sneaker drop came with two main considerations. The first was to use technology that consumers are already familiar with.

We didn’t want to push users too far outside of their comfort zone by making them download extraneous apps or presenting them with incomprehensible bits of tech without explanation. People always like to go with what they know — for this reason we built inside the ComplexCon app, which eventgoers had already been heavily encouraged to download.

The second consideration was that, without the usual booths, we needed consumers to understand that the sneaker drop they’re familiar with still existed but in a new and improved form.

This required that our design choices in the physical and virtual worlds to reflect the design style favoured by adidas Originals (and sought after by their fans); it also meant that consumers needed to be kept informed that the sneaker drop they’re familiar with still existed in a new and improved form.

Once we had these UX and design considerations blocked out, we could then layer some cool tech on top. This led us to create our initial concept which brought all this thinking together.

The Concept

We built a native app that acted as an auxiliary to ComplexCon’s event app. Inside the app, there was a virtual map that led the user to adidas waypoints, which alerts users when and where the drops would happen. We enhanced this by adding physical reminders around the venue about the time of the drops.

When a user made it to the waypoint, they would find a large, adidas-branded cube hanging from the ceiling. Proximity beacons around this area activated the app on their phone, prompting them to use the camera function to scan the cube. We also implemented similar prompts into the physical design of the cube, reading ‘Scan to Unlock’.

Observing the cube through the camera launches the apps AR functionality, showing a pixelated, stylized image of the product about to drop, along with a countdown timer of when it was going to happen. Scanning and tapping to unlock the product revealed exactly what the product dropping was. When the countdown reached zero, users were prompted to tap fast to have a chance at ‘winning’ the option to buy the product.

Not winning the product would produce a consolation message and a countdown for the next drop. On the other hand, if you won the product, the map guided you to a pickup location. This pickup location was tucked away in a quiet part of the venue that consisted of a wall of lockers.

The user would find the locker that corresponds with the type of product they won (and paid for via the app), which they can then unlock using the app within the radius of proximity beacons inside the locker. This allows the user to pick up their product when it suits them, rather than having to carry it around for the rest of the day.

Creating a Visual Identity Across Physical and Digital Space

In this section, we’ll explain the design and tech considerations that informed and led to the finished adidas sneaker drop experience.

Our major concern with design was to uphold adidas Originals’ longstanding brand aesthetic while maintaining simple functionality. Part of their core design ethos is ‘The Past Empowers the Future’, implying adidas’ rationale of staying true to their roots when designing their products.

We used this as a starting point to inject the core elements of the adidas Originals brand into our sneaker drop experience, opting for an early-90’s, nascent digital technology look that reflects the message and attitude of the brand.

That visual language focuses on a lo-fi aesthetic. That means an emphasis on the details such as pixelation, block typefaces and design-stage artefacts like printer’s marks on the cubes themselves.

The AR capability extended this visual language by superimposing the lo-fi sprites we made for the shoes on to the physical world, a kind of resonance between analogue and digital manifested in the space in front of the user. The result was a harmony of old school aesthetics in a new school digital space, reimagining Sega or Super-Nintendo style graphics through ultra-modern technology.

We chose instead to create a standardized sprite for all of the shoe models which we then coloured and textured accordingly. In hindsight, this was an especially smart move as the shoe models themselves were so new that they weren’t ready for launch until right before the event.

The AR component of our solution also incorporated a lot of practical design decisions. An example of this is our choices regarding the cube. For instance, the pattern heavy, rounded graphics — while fitting the aesthetic — also allowed us to add more AR markers on the surface and therefore have a more reliable scan at a distance. We built the cube out of a lightweight fabric and installed LED lights inside of it. These gave us the ability to actively alter the brightness of the cube in relation to the room, so we could keep it at an optimum level for scanning at all times.

In terms of tech, we were lucky enough to build an extension to ComplexCon’s app rather than build from scratch. This helped in numerous ways — increasing audience attention, decreasing user friction — but it also made a few problems in the way of sharing and passing resources externally. In the end, the prototype and proof of concept showed that it could work, and it did, much to our advantage.

The AR module was built within the Unity engine using a shared codebase that covered Android and iOS, meaning that we didn’t have to build it twice. The payments were processed with Stripe — partly because it has a Unity plug-in, and partly because of time limitations (we had initially planned to build for Apple & Google Pay).

We used a server installation at ComplexCon which the app consistently requested data from, such as time and product availability. With 25,000 people passing through the event per day — not to mention the huge usage spikes during drops — this was the most efficient way to transport and store data. The challenge for this sort of system was the threat of a potential network overload. We prepared for this by running simulations of thousands of people trying to buy hundreds of pairs of shoes, testing until we were certain nothing could break.

A similar protocol was used with Wi-Fi, in which we made use of ComplexCon’s installation and buffed it by adding extra adidas nodes near drop spots to ensure constant connectivity.

We built an installation of beacons that tracked phone proximity to physical AR components. These work via Bluetooth, making sure that users are within range of the object that they are interacting with — the cubes and lockers for example. The beacons in the lockers communicated with users’ phones via an API in order to open only for the correct customer. The lockers also had sensors inbuilt that can tell whether or not they are open, or if there is product inside.

All of these components had backups in place if something was to go wrong. Customers were able to ask for assistance within the app if they weren’t able to open their locker, which would lead them to a unique QR code with which to obtain their shoes. Fortunately for all, these fail-safes were barely used.

ComplexCon, Simplified

The event was an overwhelming success across the board. People on the ground saw and heard a huge amount of positive feedback, even from the people that didn’t win the product. Gamifying the experience made people feel like they had worked for their reward, and even when they didn’t win they still had more chances — and it definitely beat waiting in line for hours.

We managed to solve the key problems that we’d set out to from the get-go. There were no queues, and crowds formed and dispersed quickly at peak drop times. The product was kept secure at all times, available only to those that had won and paid for it. There was even a level of democracy and calmness in the air, with no anger or fighting over who got what shoes.

An interesting observation from the drops is that the physical formation of people around the cube — in a circle rather than a line — added a kind of positive psychological spin to the event; nobody was in front or behind you, everybody was equal and even the ‘losers’ stayed in good spirits. There was a real sense of camaraderie at the drop sites.

On top of that, we really felt like we’d nailed it when the CEO of Complex tweeted this picture:

This is a currently emerging technology that will only see bigger and better uses as time goes on. Whatever happens next, happened there — and we can’t wait to see where it goes from here.


At Jam3 we’re always excited to share our capabilities and innovations with the world. Think you see a potential use for our skills? Reach out to us anytime — we’d love to chat. Get in touch at info@jam3.com or go to our website for more details.