The mystery of this year's tech toy and product development in Shenzhen
December 3, 2015 10:08 PM   Subscribe

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen the scooter before. It’s sort of a phenomenon.... It’s been on the Tonight Show, and showed up at the NBA Finals. Every time anyone uploads a video or picture of this scooter, the commenters all want to know two things: What’s that called, and where can I buy it? That’s where it gets weird.
Wired digs into the world of generic segways without handlebars, often called hoverboards, while NPR's Planet Money comes to a similar conclusion, and actually digs inside one of the two-wheeled machines (bonus: not their take-apart, but someone else's), both finding the Hovertrax Kickstarter and related video from 2013.
posted by filthy light thief (68 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm desperately looking forwards to watching people fall off of these for multiple weeks after Christmas.
posted by Nomiconic at 10:21 PM on December 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Why wait? There are plenty of hoverboard fails videos and video compilations up right now. There are also some videos of skilled use, like a choreographed number to a Bieber song.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:27 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Jousting!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:39 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Casey Neistat does his part to let you know they are illegal in NYC.
posted by peeedro at 10:59 PM on December 3, 2015


It's impossible to ride one of these without looking like a bored dauphin
posted by The Whelk at 11:05 PM on December 3, 2015 [42 favorites]


It's really hard for me to discuss these things without using all caps. What is their purpose? Seriously.
posted by queensissy at 11:17 PM on December 3, 2015


People ride them around my office.

One guy stopped when a joke was made about when WALL-E was going to show up to clean up after him.
posted by mephron at 11:40 PM on December 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


They're illegal on pavements and roads in the UK as well. Strap a drone to your back instead.
posted by colie at 11:41 PM on December 3, 2015


The first thing I thought of when I saw this thing was Wall-E, we're not far from the hoverchairs now!
posted by Hazelsmrf at 11:43 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


These things have been catching fire because of stupid design (no fuses) and inferior components, and a huge number of them have been recalled.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:00 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found the article I wanted to link to: Hoverboards Seized Over Explosion Fears
Thousands of hoverboards have been seized over fears they could explode and authorities have urged caution over buying one of the gadgets.

The self-balancing scooters are tipped to be one of this year's must-have Christmas presents - but National Trading Standards (NTS) have confiscated 15,000 of the 17,000 examined since 15 October.

Officials have said most had "non-compliant electrical components that could explode or catch fire".

Dave Robinson, part of London Fire Brigade's Investigation Team, said the problem affected a number of brands - mostly imported models but not exclusively so.

"We're really concerned - we've had at least three incidents that resulted in fire. One of which, two people had to jump from a first-floor window to save themselves," said Mr Robinson.

He also urged caution on buying a hoverboard from a large, national retailer.

"A number of national stores have had to recalls or safety notices on products they've sold, so until it's ironed out ... I couldn't recommend doing that."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:05 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a really interesting Buzzfeed article about the factories in China that have tooled up overnight to start cranking these things out. It was posted by JoeZydeco in here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:17 AM on December 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


The self-balancing scooters are tipped to be one of this year's must-have Christmas presents

ISWYDT
posted by bibliowench at 1:02 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I saw one yesterday. The (nerdy looking) guy riding it also looked very self-conscious about the entire thing.

Like with Segways, you mostly observe the people riding them, not the riding itself.
posted by flippant at 1:04 AM on December 4, 2015


i've seen a few of these on the street lately and while they still look like you have to pull the exact right kind of face or you'll look like a total doofus they also cost 6 times as many monies as the two-wheelers.
posted by disso at 1:39 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


There are dozens of options of electric unicycles costing exactly the same as the hoverboards (search for "electric unicycle" on eBay, Amazon, etc). I dunno if Solowheel is the invention that the Chinese factories are ripping off or somebody trying to cash in on a fad with a premium version, though.

The thing that gets me about the hoverboards is that I can remember reading multiple times that Dean Kamen has a stack of patents up to here on tho-wheeled self-balancing vehicles, and that this was why there wasn't any kind of rush to market with competition to the Segway (aside from the even-more-doozy looking three-wheelers that security guards ride in the cheap stores). So did the original hoverboard company find a loophole, or is it the sheer ovehelming force of Chinese distributors working outside enforcement, selling direct to customers where the patents should be effective, that Kamen's lawyers can't do anything?
posted by ardgedee at 2:06 AM on December 4, 2015


...pull the exact right kind of face or you'll look like a total doofus...

For the life of me, I can't imagine what the right face would be.

Large Marge? John Lithgow in Buckaroo Banzai?
posted by rock swoon has no past at 2:07 AM on December 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Hoverboards: verboten in Holland.
posted by ouke at 3:56 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


What is their purpose? Seriously.

I'm not in the least interested in purchasing one myself, but I would hazard a guess that their purpose is fun as a novel transportation toy.
posted by fairmettle at 4:01 AM on December 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


The scariest part about this whole hoverboard thing is the conclusion that the Planet Money podcast reaches at the end of their story.

Namely: the factory dragon that is Shenzen can now scoop up your idea and have it on eBay before you can finish editing the text on your Kickstarter campaign. Patents mean nothing to the Chinese (which can be good for all of us here or, as we hear about the HoverTrax inventor, kind of shitty)

We have entered an entirely new era of manufacturing.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:27 AM on December 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


The Whelk: It's impossible to ride one of these without looking like a bored dauphin

I look forward to the official vine trend of dauphinin', and the related non-motorized dance craze, and the inevitable spin-off, dolphinin', because kids these days just don't understand that they're kind of the same, but not really, which makes it all the more funny.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:35 AM on December 4, 2015


I for one applaud the counterbalance to the mess that is patent law.
posted by MikeWarot at 4:36 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Guys, wheeled vehicles do not hover! Stop getting my hopes up!

(Silently fumes forever)
posted by selfnoise at 4:44 AM on December 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


No.
posted by Fizz at 4:46 AM on December 4, 2015


The rise of precarious employment, the evisceration of unions, degree inflation, and an inflamed housing market have all limited my generation’s access to the milestones of regular adulthood. It’s economics, not feminism, that has most altered our patterns of courtship and family-building, consigning us to the extended adolescence of baby-boomer legend.

This kind of rapid iteration has the potential to be amazing and terrible for consumers - rather than relying on (artificial) exclusivity, manufacturers have to compete on price and features. This creates exactly the situation we see, with dozens of different brands doing what they can to make themselves distinct, in good ways (better features and construction, overall refinement and improvement, lower manufacturing cost designs) and bad (cutting costs by using sub-par components or omitting safety features, rushed production meaning shitty QA, etc.) What it definitely and unquestionably does is speed up the development of existing products, dramatically. It may be bad for product development in the sense of genuinely new ideas, but it is amazing for further developing new ideas that have hit market.
posted by Dysk at 5:01 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


> We have entered an entirely new era of manufacturing.

Not even slightly. I have an aunt who patented a toy design. Before she could find a company to buy it there were already knockoffs of it on the shelves of Toys R Us. This was over 25 years ago.

Before the Chinese were doing it at the scale they're doing it now, Americans were doing it to each other just as avidly, albeit by leveraging different kinds of power imbalances.
posted by ardgedee at 5:19 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's impossible to ride one of these without looking like a bored dauphin

The first time I saw someone riding one of these to class, I thought, "Wait, what? Now WALKING is too much of a chore? You have enough energy to be standing, so you're not getting in a car or on a bike, but you LITERALLY are too lazy to move your legs????"

The first thing I thought of when I saw this thing was Wall-E, we're not far from the hoverchairs now!

Ayup.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:23 AM on December 4, 2015




I don't have the necessary level of ennui to ride one around town.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:25 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Obligatory
posted by ageispolis at 5:45 AM on December 4, 2015


Casey Neistat does his part to let you know they are illegal in NYC.

If you don't feel like watching the video, the upshot is that the cops on the street don't care and half of them don't even think it's illegal.

But now he is into Boosted boards, so I predict those are the next big thing.
posted by smackfu at 5:45 AM on December 4, 2015


I can't believe I'm about to link to a hoverboard dance video set to Justin Bieber on MetaFilter, but, amazingly, it's actually relevant. And reallllly rad.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 5:56 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I saw these first at a tiny local beer festival. A guy came with two of his friends riding the boards, and was trying to sell them for $800. I chatted with them and he said he made them himself. For about a week I thought all the Hoverboards were made by one random dude in a basement in Minneapolis.
posted by miyabo at 6:15 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


We have entered an entirely new era of manufacturing.

No. It's the same as it's always been. Most of us can remember a similar hot two wheeled xmas item from not too long ago. So hot, it was widely copied and sold and the name of the original, that the name of the original became virtually synonymous with anything hat looked the same: the Razor Scooter. There were some hand wringing articles at the time, too about IP violations, the end of the world as we know it, so on. 20 years or sop later, the Razor brand still exists. Someone did something right. The dozens of virtually anonymous and/or unknown copycat manufacturers have moved on or ceased to exist.

Similarly folks always worrying about how dorky you look riding one, how dangerous they are, how illegal they are. Seriously, who gives a fuck? Does anyone think they will be more dorky, cause more injuries, be more illegal than Razor scooters. Or skateboards? So on?

Look, it's tough to be an inventor. It's tough being a manufacturer. IP laws grant various legal protections. They don't grant business success. That's the story of IP protections since they've existed. This is the old era of manufacturing that's all we've ever known, even if we don't know it.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:27 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


For about a week I thought all the Hoverboards were made by one random dude in a basement in Minneapolis.

Necessity being the mother of invention because he had lost his car.
posted by srboisvert at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2015


It's impossible to ride one of these without looking like a bored dauphin

there are several dudes (all dudes...) with these in my corner of Paris, which has a higher density of châteaux than others. And yes. They totally pull off the bored dauphin look, including but not limited to grimacing if you don't move out of their way on the sidewalk.

Glad to hear they're being pulled, hope that reaches here too.
posted by fraula at 6:50 AM on December 4, 2015


I first saw one on the first season of Empire. (Empire fans would be unsurprised that it was Hakeem riding it, obviously.) I'm assuming that's where the dozens of students riding them all over our campus first saw them, too.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:55 AM on December 4, 2015


That comment about the bored dauphin is EXACTLY Hakeem riding one of those into a board meeting on Empire.

Oh, in the last episode they are doing a DANCE NUMBER on these things.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:58 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Casey Neistat does his part to let you know they are illegal in NYC."

I can't watch the video right now but if he mentions that he thinks that they're illegal because of a now-deleted NYPD tweet then he's wrong since that tweet was pulled since it turned out that they were legal under the law cited as they don't have handlebars.
posted by I-baLL at 7:16 AM on December 4, 2015


We just had a major thru street comprehensively and gorgeously repaved, and the morning it reopened to traffic a bunch of punk kids were out there riding their wheely hoverboards all over the gorgeous expanse of new pavement. It was sort of annoying as I had to get my kids to school while not running these kids over, but also amusing to watch them hijack a four-lane road to behave like gliding doofuses. It looked fun.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I had a football player in my class this semester and he rode one to class every day while trying to maintain an air of nonchalance and cool that goes along with being a D1 football player... but it just looked kind of goofy.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:40 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you didn't read the article about the product's origin, it's worth the time. My take on it is this Hoverboard is a bellwhether of Chinese manufacturing culture colonizing America. Bring it on! What's fascinating is the way the product isn't properly branded, advertised, or marketed. Just this viral thing that's happening in US pop culture media that might or might not be authentic.

Other examples of Chinese-originated successful products in the US are Xiaomi Yi (a GoPro-like camera) or cheap Chinese-made Android phones. They also have awkward branding and marketing, but they are at least recognizable variants on American-branded products. The HoverBoard appears entirely without context in the US, one day it just showed up.
posted by Nelson at 7:46 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Holy crap you guys, calm down, nobody is on your lawn! (They're hovering over it!)
posted by soplerfo at 7:48 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't have the necessary level of ennui to ride one around town.

Last week I saw a business man in a suit with a briefcase riding down the street in the early morning on one of the monowheel ones. He certainly did have the necessary level of ennui, and I envied him.
posted by cmoj at 8:37 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


So do people buy kits online and assemble them? Someone posted handmade signs around the frat row near work advertising "I build hoverboards $400" or something like that.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:51 AM on December 4, 2015


In January, a new California law (recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown) will take effect making electric skateboards street-legal - basically making them subject to the same restrictions as bicycles. This applies to hoverboards and also motor-assisted skateboards. They were formerly illegal in California - the old-school ones were liquid-fuel powered.

Text of AB-604.

Some points:

Operators must be at least 16.

Operators of motorized skateboards of any age must wear a helmet when riding on a highway, bikeway, or any other public bicycle path, sidewalk, or trail. The helmet law for bicycles, however, only applies to people under 18.

Local authorities (including Regents of the University of California and the Trustees of the California State University) could set their own regulations. For instance, a city could ban them, as San Francisco did Segways on sidewalks in 2002 when the state of California legalized them (with a deadline for how soon local authorities had to act to make an exception to state law.)

SF Transportation Code SEC. 7.2.11. makes illegal: ELECTRIC PERSONAL ASSISTIVE MOBILITY DEVICES.
To operate an electric personal assistive mobility device on any sidewalk. (104)*
(Amended by Ord. 287-08, File No. 081340, App. 12/5/2008)
(this 2008 change seems simply to have been a revision code but did not affect the legality of EPAMDs.)

In non-motorized skateboard news, San Francisco Transportation Code SEC. 7.2.13 prohibits riding NUV (Non-Motorized vehicles, including non-motorized skateboards) on sidewalks OR streets in business districts. In other words, no non-motorized skateboarding to work downtown.

2008 BART policy treats EPMADs in a similar way to bicycles - "EPAMDs are allowed in the system only at the same times and on the same trains as bicycles."

Googling EPAMD turns up this 2003 paper: The SegwayTM Is a Vehicle
posted by larrybob at 10:25 AM on December 4, 2015


California law (Vehicular code Section 467) definition of a pedestrian includes a person on a skateboard, person using an EPAMD or a person using a wheelchair or motorized disability scooter. Definition of an EPAMD (VC Sec 313)
posted by larrybob at 10:52 AM on December 4, 2015


I first became of aware of these by watching Missy Elliott's new video (at around 3:10).

My 12-year-old son informs me that the correct term is "Swagway".
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:02 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel like the trend of super-popular people posting hover board videos on Vine is an underestimated infection vector for this trend. It's where I first saw one and I bet I'm not alone.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


As far as I'm concerned, this is the one and only approved use for these things.
posted by mshrike at 11:37 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


larrybob: the old-school [motorized skateboards] were liquid-fuel powered.

Back in the early or mid 2000s, lawnmower engine powered scooters were popular with a number of guys at my mid-sized California college - they were noisy, smelly, but fast and probably pretty cheap. If there were any motorized skateboards like that, I would have outlawed them, too.


LastOfHisKind: I feel like the trend of super-popular people posting hover board videos on Vine is an underestimated infection vector for this trend. It's where I first saw one and I bet I'm not alone.

I imagine that's the case - when they're $500 to $1,500, it's definitely the realm of the casually rich, who have a significant following on social media, giving them a disproportionate pop culture presence in relation to actual use of the devices.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:50 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I see these often on Vine, ridden by bros who always seem way too proud of how moderately amusing their six second "skits" are.
posted by I_Zimbra at 12:15 PM on December 4, 2015


These normally cost less than $300 online. Somebody is making a killing reselling them for 500+
posted by I-baLL at 12:35 PM on December 4, 2015


I'm really curious if all the celebrity exposure for the product is genuine enthusiasm or if it's a payed placement. The cynic in me assumes paid, but then paid for by whom? As the fine article linked here says, the stuff isn't properly branded, it's not clear where to buy one or exactly where to get the same one you're seeing in your favorite Vine.
posted by Nelson at 12:45 PM on December 4, 2015


It's really hard for me to discuss these things without using all caps. What is their purpose? Seriously.

Welcome to being old! Your get-off-my-lawn kit will arrive shortly.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:52 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have no idea how to put my feelings about this in to words... But I regret to inform you all that Swagway is a real brand now.
posted by emptythought at 2:16 PM on December 4, 2015


I feel like the trend of super-popular people posting hover board videos on Vine is an underestimated infection vector for this trend. It's where I first saw one and I bet I'm not alone.

Society ruining millennial here, and IG/vine is where I first saw these. Same with my friends.

Imo the most interesting aspect of this is how quickly they went from $1500 luxury products to $400 aliexpress things that YouTube nerds bought... To massively available on the US web $250-400 things.

They were definitely vine/IG/YouTube memes before they were on empire and those talk shows and stuff, but the rapid mainstreaming was super fascinating to watch. It was like seeing the past 8 years of smartphone evolution happen in 2-4 months.
posted by emptythought at 3:05 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


The trick is, you sell them FOB through a shell company and once you have fulfilled a few containers worth of orders you start a new shell, rotate the decals on the product and maybe the colours for the plastic injection mold, rinse and repeat. What are they going to do, come to China and try to sue you? HAHAHAHA!! Who the fuck cares if they catch fire, as long as they work for the first two minutes when you try it out at the store? If we need a demo model that will last longer, we buy one of the beefy $2000 models and throw our housing around it.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:46 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Even if they work perfectly as designed and have no patent problems, there's some liability risk when someone falls onto a sidewalk at 10mph and breaks their skull. You can avoid that too by being untraceable.
posted by miyabo at 6:10 PM on December 4, 2015


I have had an opportunity to try a number of different models in indoor and outdoor conditions. I ended up purchasing 8 inch wheel models without the speakers or lights direct from China as an early Xmas present for me and the kids. They are very fun to ride. Easier to learn than a skateboard.

A few pro-tips
-There are 3 different wheel sizes out there at the moment. 6.5 inch, 8inch and 10 inch. Personally I found the 6.5 inch too rough to ride outside. Through for flying around office hallways like Razor scooters during the dotcom era its perfect. The 10" is just too big and feels less responsive and stable. So if you plan to go on Sidewalks or streets consider 8" diameter wheels.
-The Bluetooth speakers dont work well and are not worth it. Also the Bluetooth start remote is equally useless. Save your money.
-Put tape on various edges and the top to protect the plastic. The plastic will scratch easily and tape is easy to redo.
-The machine is doing all the work of balancing you. Any loss of power such as low battery or under some error modes will cause you to find yourself falling. Once you get comfortable on it, it is easy to forget the fact that the machine is doing the work and think you are the one balancing.
posted by humanfont at 7:08 PM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


People having fun. I blame Capitalism.
posted by happyroach at 8:08 PM on December 4, 2015


I see a lot of these around my office in Hollywood. Some people joke that every serious dj/producer needs one but the same friends who joke about it and own one are also dj/producers that use public transit.
posted by RichAndCreamy at 10:47 PM on December 4, 2015


humanfont writes:
The machine is doing all the work of balancing you.

It's interesting that you say this because when PlanetMoney had one taken apart they found no closed-loop control system at all. This was a big difference between the original HoverTrax kickerstarter unit, which had gyroscopes to close the control loop like a classic Segway, and the cheap knockoff, which had nothing. Apparently somebody figured out that human balance response can learn to control the things without much difficulty.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:08 AM on December 5, 2015


It's still balancing you, they just claimed it wasn't using a gyroscope or accelerometers to do it. The explanation was two switches under each foot. I'm assuming their under the ball and heel of your foot and it's picking up on the subtle weight shifts on your foot to figure out what your body is trying to do and moves the board in that direction. If that is what it is then it is super clever and should have a patent all by itself, assuming that wasn't patented long long ago.

I'm not sure how much I trust the information from their 'experts' that disassembled the board. Especially when the gyros and accelerometers were described as big. They're all MEMS devices now and are mounted directly to the circuit boards.
posted by TheJoven at 12:26 PM on December 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't an accelerometer chip in there. People have worked on the inverted pendulum problem for ages, and it always requires some kind of proportional control. Plus they only cost a few bucks now, so there's no reason to go to great lengths to avoid it. Would love to see a teardown from a serious expert like the EEVBlog guy!
posted by miyabo at 1:36 PM on December 7, 2015


Cellphones have accelerometers and gyroscopes these days (along with compasses, FM radios, and thermometers). I would imagine there's a way to fit those into scooter-like rides, since they can't be more than a couple mm on their longest edge.
posted by ardgedee at 7:31 AM on December 8, 2015


Yeah, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't an accelerometer chip in there

In the Planet Money podcast they actually tear one apart. No accelerometer. Just microswitches on the leading and trailing edges of the footrests.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:03 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's what I was responding to. I suspect the Planet Money team missed something. I'm no expert but I did write the controller for a friend's homemade self-balancing unicycle so I'm very interested in how it works exactly....
posted by miyabo at 9:45 AM on December 9, 2015


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