Back to the future with a Segway sequel

hoverboard

Dean Kamen didn’t return my phone calls, so I can’t be sure about this: I suspect he’s having a bittersweet Christmas.

Kamen is the New Hampshire-based inventor of Segway, a two-wheeled electric vehicle that was supposed to change the world back in 2001. Alas, consumers weren’t interested in the bulky $5,000 device. These days you mainly see them driven by mall security guards and crowd-control cops.

Fourteen years later comes a smaller, lighter, and much cheaper approach. We call it a hoverboard now. You can buy one for as little as $300. And shoppers around the world can’t get enough of them.

Think oversize skateboard, but with rubber tires mounted sideways, and powered by an electric motor, with a computer and gyroscopes to keep the device and its occupant upright. The Segway had handlebars, but it turns out you don’t need them.

As one of maybe 15 Americans who have never seen “Back to the Future,” I had no desire to own something like this — until I saw one at the International CES show in Las Vegas in January. I took a whirl on a hoverboard, and after a few near falls, I was having a ball.

Its only serious drawback was the $1,800 price. Slash that by half, and gadgets like this would sell tens of thousands. Cut it even more, and they might move millions.

Eleven months later, the Tab USA store at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree is selling hoverboards for $600 when they’ve got them — and right now they don’t. Tab USA moved more than 100 during the week of Black Friday alone, and they’re expecting to sell another 200 by Christmas. But they kept a few units on hand for thrill-seeking journalists.

Akash Modi, Tab USA’s chief executive, gave me a refresher course.

“The best thing is to keep your body relaxed and calm,” Modi said. “When you are riding it for the first time, people try to balance, and that’s what confuses the machine.”

Instead, you just stand there, same as on a sidewalk, and the hoverboard does the work.

Ready to go? Just look at your destination, said Modi. And remarkably, that was all it took. We tend to lean in the direction we look, and that shift in weight sends the hoverboard on its way. Soon I was racing across the floor at five to six miles an hour, grinning like a fool.

Modi said his board, called the Tab Wheels, is good for about 12 miles of travel on a single battery charge, enough to carry me to work and back at a running pace. The board weighs 26 pounds, a little hefty for slinging over your back, but manageable. It can carry a load of up to 265 pounds.

It is water-resistant, to survive a quick splash from a puddle; the company’s working on a fully waterproof version. The onboard battery is good for about two years of service, just like the one in your cellphone. A replacement will cost about $100.

Modi said most hoverboards are bought for fun. Parents get them as fancy toys, but also as a cool way for their teenagers to cover the distance to high school.

Is Tab Wheels the right board to buy? Beats me. Dozens of companies now sell hoverboards, and none have been around long enough to earn a reputation, good or bad. But they’re all looking for ways to stand out. For instance, a kiosk in a different part of the mall featured a gaudy $900 system with Bluetooth speakers — a rolling boom box that blasts music stored on the rider’s smartphone.

These gadgets are remarkably controversial. While a Boston Police Department spokesperson told me they’re legal in these parts, New York City and the entire United Kingdom have banned hoverboards from public roads, calling them unlicensed motor vehicles.

And then there are the patent wars. Segway, now owned by a Chinese company, and Kamen’s own Deka Products, sued a board maker called Inventist in federal court in September for trampling on a host of Kamen’s patents.

If Dean Kamen is right, it’s shameless imitation but of the most flattering sort. The hoverboard might prove to be just another Christmas fad — this year’s Furby. Or it might be that Kamen’s remarkable innovation spawned a world-changer after all. So if I were in his shoes, I’d be pretty bummed out right about now. And also kind of proud.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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