This is a story about hoverboards, but let’s just get something straight.
The name is a lie.
Hoverboards, at least the ones you’ve been reading about since rapper Wiz Khalifa was arrested riding one, do not hover.
They roll. They roll like a Segway without handlebars, because that’s what they are.
Tourists and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” love Segways. Rappers and athletes and celebrities love “hoverboards” — which means they are cool. Which means your teenage son is going to ask for one for Christmas. Soon, they’ll start selling them at Brookstone, and Apple will make an iHover.
They seem to be a lie that’s here to stay, so hop on board and let’s get rolling.
The allure of floating
Long, long ago, man dreamed of flying. He figured it out.
Twenty-six years ago, man dreamed of soaring through the air on a pink and green flying skateboard. He had seen “Back to the Future Part II,” and he has been trying to copy it ever since.
The movie’s main character, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), has time-traveled from 1985 to Oct. 21, 2015. When he finds himself followed by a mob of angry teenagers, he borrows a little girl’s wheel-less scooter. Ditching the handle, he throws the base out like a skateboard, hops on with two feet and starts to zoom over streets, cars and unsuspecting pedestrians.
“He’s on a hoverboard!” one of the bullies yells.
The scene became the most talked-about part of the movie, especially after director Robert Zemeckis started telling people the board was real. He reportedly repeated in a serious tone that the only reason it wasn’t on the market was resistance from parent groups.
People figured it out, of course, but imaginations were sparked. Many a dad in a garage started putting together plywood and high-powered leaf blowers and, with some success, created little floating vehicles.
Those are hovercrafts however. Hovercrafts are propelled by floating on air. A hoverboard, as imagined by Zemeckis, is powered by the resistance of magnets.
In theory, this is possible using a technology similar to magnetic levitation (“maglev”) high-speed trains. Two magnets with the same polarity reflect each other. If you can put one on the floating board and one in the ground, they should push each other away, making the board float.
But reality is a lot more complicated than theory. To create a force strong enough to push up a board, you need a magnet made of “superconducting” elements. To work, those elements have to be cooled to an exact temperature by a substance such as liquid nitrogen or helium, which is tedious and expensive.
One French artist used this knowledge to create a “Back to the Future” replica hoverboard in 2010. It floated, but it would fall down if touched or pushed.
The artist faced the problem that’s still in the way of turning hoverboard dreams into reality: Once it floats, it needs to hold weight and move around.
Meanwhile, let’s put it on wheels.
Enter the two-wheeled electric scooter. While inventors were toiling away with magnets, savvy entrepreneurs were creating a new way to get around. We won’t throw blame on who started calling them “hoverboards” first, but the name seemed to officially go mainstream in August when rapper Khalifa was arrested for riding one through the Los Angeles airport.
The artist took to Twitter after the arrest, saying the skirmish was all because he didn’t want to ditch the technology he thinks everyone will be using within the next six months.
“I stand for our generation and our generation is gonna be riding hover boards,” he said.
He went back the LAX with his wheels the following week — this time in a suit — and no one arrested him.
Khalifa’s board, the PhunkeeDuck, doesn’t advertise itself as a hoverboard, but Khalifa is doing so for the company.
He’s one of many: Meek Mill, Justin Bieber, Robert Griffin III, Jamie Foxx, Ruby Rose, John Legend, Cara Delevingne, Kendall Jenner, Skrillex, Wale, Mike Tyson, Diplo and Chris Brown have all been seen on two-wheeled adventures.
For between $600 and $1,500 or so, you can do the same with scooters such as the Mobi Max, MonoRover R2, IO Hawk or OneWheel.
You can find them, unfortunately, by searching Google for “hoverboards.”
Getting closer to the real thing
If you were expecting to reach the end of this article to find that hoverboards are real and in production, don’t you think we would have said that up top?
Inventors are closer to making legitimate, usable hoverboards than they’ve ever been, but we’re not there yet.
You might have seen a commercial from the car company Lexus bragging about its hoverboard creation.
Using superconducting magnets chilled by liquid nitrogen, Lexus did create a board that hovers a few inches off the ground.
Now the “howevers”: It has to float over a magnet-filled track in Spain, it needs refilled every 15 minutes, and even a pro-skater had trouble balancing on it after four months of practice.
It wasn’t quite as disappointing as when Funny or Die made a fake hoverboard advertisement with pro-skater Tony Hawk last year. The ad has been watched 16 million times on YouTube.
“I thought it would be obvious that it was fake, but a lot of people believed it. I wanted to believe it as much as you did,” Hawk said later.
Perhaps that’s why the skater teamed up with the inventors who are working on the most advanced hoverboard seemingly in the works, the “Hendo.” Started in 2012, the Hendo is a project founded by California couple Jill and Greg Henderson. It works similarly to the Lexus version, but by using sheets of common metal to form the ground beneath the board, the Hendo functions more like the “Back to the Future” board we’re hoping for, even though it can barely get off the ground.
Here’s Hawk trying it out:
Although the company has promised Hendos to backers who paid $10,000 on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the board is not yet in production. You can get a replica that doesn’t float or a miniature version that floats only above a small base magnet. Maybe an ant could ride it, but that’s about it.
If you want to try a real Hendo, you’ll have to find your way the company’s next big Hoverboard testing event.
It’s on Oct. 21, 2015 — the day Marty McFly landed in the future.