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04 Aug 2015, 20:30

The Year of Hoverboards

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The past year seems to be the year of hoverboards. Last Spring, we had Tony Hawk, and Doc Brown screaming about HUVr, a real hoverboard that was even better than the one shown in Back to the Future.

I was skeptical, the video looked fake, and I sort of figured that a real live hoverboard, at least the first generation, would not be so amazingly mind-blowing as the one in the video. I was, of course, right. It was a CGI stunt made by some Hollywood people. Doc Brown lied to us.

In December of 2014, there was this video of someone who built a hoverboard out of four leaf-blowers, and called it a Mr Hoverboard.

The Mr Hoverboard is unique in that it can actually work on cement, as opposed to metal, as the others I will discuss below.

In October of last year that Hendo Hoverboards launched their KickStarter, for a real hoverboard. People were more incredulous this time around, but Hendo’s product looked more realistic to me. I decided to back their campaign for a sticker and a refrigerator magnet. One of the things that sold me on it being real was that there was a pretty major compromise that they had to make, which was that the surface that they were riding on needed to be metal. This made sense.

Tony Hawk even comes back to do the real thing.

Well, with Hendo, I got my sticker, and I just read that they appear to be making good progress towards shipping the beta boards. They’ve got an office in Sunnyvale or Mountain View, but even though I’m a backer, I’m not sure that would be enough to be able to drop in and try it out. (Since that was its own reward level.)

Then, this summer, Lexus has been teasing us with their own hoverboard announcement. Here’s the teaser:

Today, they released this video of someone actually riding it around a skate park.

What they don’t say in the video is that there’s metal under everything that they are taking this board over. It looks like a normal concrete skate park, but it’s not. I appreciate Hendo’s being up front with this detail, because this detail is one of those things that would indicate a leap forward in physics in one case, and in the other, it’s a new application of an existing technology. Again, it’s the latter. With that said, Hendo appears to have some new technology in there as well, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details.

They did make a little documentary that explains some of this.

There appears to be a major difference in the mechanisms that the two boards use to achieve their magnetic effect. The Lexus uses a supercooled superconductor, which requires liquid nitrogen to cool. The Hendo board uses what the manufacturer calls “hover engines”. They discuss the hover engine in this Engadget article.

In the video, I don’t see any steam coming off of the Hendo boards as I do the Lexus. The Lexus hoverboard is going to require recharging the liquid nitrogen, which probably won’t be terribly cheap or easy. If the Hendo board can recharge itself on electricity alone, that would be a big win. I haven’t seen either one state how long they can stay afloat before needing some sort of intervention.

One other note is the design factor. I think that the Lexus hoverboard wins here, but all we’ve seen of Hendo boards so far have been prototypes. That said, the Lexus board seems to take into account things that skaters will care about, which are surfaces for grinding. I’m not sure that the Hendo board will be so sturdy.

Either way, one cool thing is that we may see metal hoverboard parks in the near future where people with different kinds of hoverboards can all come and enjoy. And, given that they will all likely be rediculously expensive, hopefully we’ll be able to rent them as well.

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