In Back to the Future 2, time traveler Marty McFly finds himself in the year 2015 watching a little girl speed past him. He shouts, "Hey, hey! Stop! Little girl, stop! Look, I need to borrow your… Hoverboard." With those iconic lines, the world got its first glimpse of the levitating plank that has captured our imagination ever since. From then on, we've been writing about hoverboards, dreaming about hoverboards, and trying to make hoverboards a reality. Now that we've finally reached the year 2015, the dream of a floating personal transportation device is within our grasp. Hendo Hoverboards, a company run by Jill and Greg Henderson, are using magnetics, energy, and Kickstarter to bring hoverboards out of futuristic movies and into the real world.
The road to the hoverboard has, so far, been fraught with instability and failed first tries. When inventor Dean Kamen first announced he was working on a self-stabilizing, eco-friendly mode of transportation a lot of people thought he was developing a hoverboard. Hopes were dashed in 2001 when it turned out his project was actually the Segway.
Several inventors and tinkerers, including the almighty Mythbusters (in an episode from 2004), have "successfully" created hoverboards out of leaf blowers. But these hoverboards were only hoverboards in the sense that they A. hovered and B. were boards. However, they were unstable, couldn't reliably support much mass, and were impossible to steer and ride.
Then the internet's heart collectively broke in March 2014 when a hoverboard hoax video circulated. A company named HUVr released the four and a half minute clip starring various celebrities (Moby, Terrell Owens, Bethany Cosentino, Schoolboy Q, and Tony Hawk) riding around on a "hoverboard" in a parking lot. The video went viral, but keen-eyed viewers picked out incomplete special effects. The clip has been attributed to Funny or Die, and looking at the video now, of course it's a fake. But seeing it the first day it posted, even I allowed myself to be fooled.
Back to the Future 2 Still
Since the release of Back to the Future 2, the idea of the hoverboard has wormed its way into popular culture. From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games to shitty made-for-TV kids' movies starring Tim Curry, it has become eponymous with our vision of a promising future.
But now, thanks to the Hendersons, hoverboards are actually happening. It seemed impossible, but one-time hoverboard-faker Tony Hawk rode a hoverboard for real, and I spoke to him about the experience.
"It feels… I guess it feels it feels like a skimboard that never slows down." The skating legend explained, "Once you step on it, the direction that it spins, that's the direction that you're going eternally, unless you put your hand down or stop it some other way." Control mechanisms are currently in development which, as described by the Hendo Hoverboards people to Tony, "sounds like something more akin to an invisible fin like a surfboard would have."
These developments are all thanks to Hendo's core technology called Magnetic Field Architecture. The basic idea behind the science is essentially: yes, you can create a hovering effect when two magnets are placed with the same poles facing, but the static space between them is, basically, garbage. But if eddy currents are moved on a conductive material, they also create an opposing (but much more stable) magnetic field. The Magnetic Field Architecture makes that field even more efficient.
The Kickstarter for the Hendo Hoverboard ended on December 15, 2014. They raised over 200 percent of what they were asking for, bringing in $510,000. They're using the money for bigger and better implementation of the technology. "He's an architect by trade," said Tony, "so he was thinking more about building stability during earthquakes."
So is the board just a novelty? Is the board just a spinning, unstable death machine (as it seems to be in some of the video of Tony riding it)? "Just based on what I saw and how much they accomplished in a short time […] I think that it may be a novelty," Tony reflects, "but I think they're learning as they go, they're working really hard, and they're really committed to make something that is fun and not scary."
And Tony has some words for those detractors, too: "From what I can tell about the comments that people are making about it, they're missing the bigger picture. They see this and they think that's it, that's the end of it. The complaints are, You can't control it. It only works on certain surfaces.But they had to start somewhere. And from what they told me, they're developing a spray they can put on other surfaces to make almost any terrain suitable."
If the Hendo can come up with things like that spray to help make their hoverboards more practical, our 2015 could start to look a lot like the one depicted in Back to the Future 2.
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