I’m tired of being lied to. Tired of companies exploiting my childhood dreams of riding a hoverboard just like Back to the Future Part II. When Doc Brown let me down, I was ready to write off the whole idea. But this week, my dream finally came true.
I stepped onto a glorified piece of plywood equipped with eighty pounds of batteries and electromagnets… and glided effortlessly across the ground. Ladies and gentlemen, the hoverboard is real.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a marketing stunt. The startup company that created the board, Arx Pax, is more interested in selling technology that could protect buildings from earthquakes and floods than catering to our geeky collective nostalgia for a movie that’s 25 years old. (Shame on them, right?)
All of which was the furthest thing from my mind when I was floating in mid-air on an actual hoverboard.
Yes, it’s freaking heavy at nearly 40kg, so heavy that engineers told me they’d be breaking OSHA safety regulations by lifting it with fewer than two people. Yes, the batteries drain after a few minutes: the current state of the art requires 40W per kilogram. And yes, it only floats above non-ferrous, highly conductive surfaces like copper or aluminium, since it works by rapidly electro-magnetising the surfaces beneath it to actually lift off the ground. You won’t be able to take this on the pavement, or really anywhere outside of its testing grounds.
But when I stepped onto the floating board and felt it effortlessly resist my 90kg frame — without even trying to slip out from under my feet, I might add — I was filled with joy.
Even in the purpose-built copper-clad miniature skatepark in the back of Arx Pax’s tiny Los Gatos offices, the board wasn’t easy to control. Two engineers stood by at all times to keep me from falling, while a third stood by with a remote kill switch in case it went off the rails. Metaphorically, anyhow.
And I soon discovered why they had me sign a waiver at the door. Because here’s no friction, no resistance to speak of, the hoverboard basically acts like a giant air hockey puck, gliding effortlessly across the surface. And because a 136kg air hockey puck has a buttload of inertia, once you start moving it’s not easy to stop. Once, I wound up in an uncontrollable spin that felt like it would last forever if I hadn’t stepped off in a hurry. While I had the option to kick in any direction like a skateboard (or push off with a long pole) the safest way was simply to let them give me a push across the copper surface.
Kyle shows me the test room.
And oh gosh, is this thing loud. So loud and obnoxious and unpolished. “I look forward to it being quieter,” says Shauna Moran, one of the team’s lead engineers, in the understatement of the week. “You might also have noticed this board is made of plywood,” she quips.
But this uncontrollable, noisy beast under my feet is just the current prototype, the 18th or so in a long line of rapidly prototyped hovering machines.
The Whitebox, holding up a full paint can.
By the time you read these words, Arx Pax will have met its $US250,000 goal to develop the Hendo Hoverboard, which will primarily ship out so-called “Whitebox” developer kits to people who want to build products with the technology, hoverboard or otherwise. They’re $US300 a pop. The Whitebox is impressive enough by itself: a 5kg cube that can suspend 18kg in mid-air for 15 minutes on a charge. (Incredibly, it will bounce if you drop it from an inch or so.)
What’s inside? They wouldn’t say, but our best guess is rotating magnets
But you don’t want the $US300 model. You want the Manta Ray, a device shaped like a giant hockey puck that you can drive and steer. This is what they hope the hoverboard will be. By modifying the “magnetic field architecture” in real time, it can pick itself up off the ground and push off in any direction using a remote control. You drive it just like you’d fly a miniature quadcopter, except again, way more inertia. Arx Pax is offering a $US900 version of the Whitebox that does the same thing, only controlled by your phone.
Shauna demos the Manta Ray prototype. It can build momentum to climb the ramp.
And after Arx Pax figures out propulsion, the company claims the next next step is a tractor beam-like effect to let it climb surfaces. Which sounds crazy, I’ll admit, but then again I never really expected to step onto a working hoverboard until I did.
Where is all of this going? Good question, because the answer isn’t quite clear. Most immediately, the company intends to ship a few working $US10,000 hoverboards and quite a few $US300 and $US900 Whiteboxes one year from now, on October 21st, 2015. (Yes, that’s the day Marty McFly goes back to the future.)
And if you ask founder Greg Henderson, one-half of the husband-and-wife team that started the company, he’ll tell you about all kinds of amazing potential applications. Imagine if you had a swarm of autonomous, frictionless printer heads that could print something at any size you want. Imagine if they scrubbed down ships at sea, requiring no more drydocks. Imagine if spacecraft didn’t have to actually touch one another to dock. (Some of the company engineers are hearing these ideas for the first time as Henderson relays them to me, to give you some idea of just how early stage they are.)
But Henderson, a former Army Ranger, platoon leader and architect by trade, says the genesis of the idea came over 20 years ago with the famous Loma Prieta earthquake. The idea came to him that buildings and people could be saved if there was a way to make them float. “The Hayward Fault has a 50 per cent chance of a major event in the next 50 years,” says Henderson, gesturing to a map of the San Francisco Bay Area on the wall.
Pointing out the flood plains clearly drawn on the map and alluding to the devastation that would occur along the peninsula if sea levels rise, he tells me that Arx Pax’s primary goal is something much grander than riding a board: he wants to create entire buildings that can lift off the ground to survive flooding, could be rotated in place to maximise solar power, or even be reconfigured into different campus structures. He hopes to construct a prototype facility in time for the next natural disaster, to prove that it’s a better way to build. Only for buildings, we’re not necessarily talking about electromagnets anymore.
Leaving Arx Pax’s facility, there are still questions over whether the hoverboard is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a marketing stunt, or whether this technology is actually a big freaking deal. But the one thing it is for sure? Real.