Two weeks ago, I went to a Wiz Khalifa concert and watched the 27-year-old rapper ride a two-wheeled self-balancing electric scooter around the stage. This was probably an affectation on some level—he was also shirtless, wearing expensive-looking mariachi pants, and at one point sent two huge, inflatable blunts into the crowd—but it was obvious he fucking loved that little gadget. During "You and Your Friends," he and approximately four of his friends did a synchronized dance on the scooters, and when Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy (with whom Wiz was co-headlining the Boys of Zummer Tour) came out to play bass, Wentz was also riding one.
Over the weekend, Wiz Khalifa was handcuffed by police at Los Angeles International Airport, allegedly for refusing to dismount the same sort of two-wheeled self-balancing electric scooter. Everyone is calling this contraption a "hoverboard," possibly because Wiz Khalifa tweeted, "I stand for our generation and our generation is gonna be riding hover boards so if you don't like it eat a dick!" (I reached out to Wiz Khalifa's record label for comment but did not get an immediate response.)
In a single tweet, Khaflia managed to encapsulate the essentials of the two-wheeled self-balancing electric scooter:
- These things are incredibly, even bizarrely, popular.
- Nobody knows what the hell to call them.
These little rolly fuckers are tricky things to describe, and trickier things to name. I've heard them referred to as "the thing like a Segway with no handlebars." My friend David calls them "rap scooters," since so many rappers seem to use them; my friend Eric calls them "skywalkers"; my friend Jamie calls them "airgliders." These things are made by a variety of companies no one has ever heard of, like Phunkeeduck, IO Hawk, and Monorover, and as a recent Wired article pointed out, there are significantly more brands pushing the things than there are factories making them.
To the uninitiated, these things look like pieces of alien technology, or like something you'd stand on to make a laser-proof force field in some nonexistent sci-fi extreme sports movie. If you follow rappers, hip-hop producers, and EDM DJs on Instagram, you'll see them everywhere. Here's Young Thug and one of his friends riding one at the same time. Here's Skrillex using one to do a weird kickflip thing. Here's Soulja Boy—who actually has his own line of scooters called "Soulja Boards"—riding one while also wearing light-up shoes.
Given their hefty price tag (the Phunkeeduck and IO Hawk cost $1,500 or more, while a generic model costs about $300 on Amazon), it's still rare to see them in real life, let alone ride one. But through the power of journalism (i.e., emailing every scooter company I could find asking for a review model until someone sent me one) I obtained one of these things, and discovered why Wiz Khalifa liked it so much that he refused to get off of it in the airport.
My test model, a Monorover R2, looked more or less like every other two-wheeled self-balancing electric scooter. Mine was white with blue lights on the front that flashed whenever they felt the pressure of my feet. Once you mount the thing, you go forward by pointing your toes down and shifting your weight forward and you go backward by shifting your weight to your heels. To steer left or right, you point your toes toward the ground. This sounds a lot more confusing than it is; once you get the hang of it, the process becomes intuitive.
The problem I had with my Monorover was getting on it. You have to get onto it one foot at a time, but but since the scooters' sensors can't tell the difference between "getting on" and "putting all of your weight on one foot and wanting to go in the opposite direction," putting your foot on the thing immediately sends the other side shooting either toward your body or away from it. This ended in me doing some weird dance-hop thing that immediately threw me into panic mode, which was only exacerbated by the fact that I was now on a machine designed to respond to my subtle movements by zooming off. (Getting off of it is slightly easier; the trick is to hop off the thing all at once.)
But after 20 awkward minutes getting the hang of the device, using the Monorover was a dream. You glide around while appearing to not move at all, and unless you're suddenly faced with stairs there's no reason to ever get off. I spent most of the day Friday on my Monorover, using it in conjunction with a standing desk to do work, not even dismounting it to pee (this is easier than you'd think).
Photo by Mike Pearl
When I was 16, I passed the driver's test and immediately decided that I was the greatest driver of all time. This meant that I was totally justified in doing stuff like driving my mom's Honda Accord 120 miles per hour at one in the morning on the freeway, or trying to drive over a dip in a country road so fast that her car actually went airborne. Long story short I got scared straight after I fishtailed while racing my friend on the way up a mountain to take the SAT and nearly crashed—but to this day, once I vaguely get the hang of some sort of transportation, I immediately assume that I'm the Evel Knievel of that shit.
With the Monorover, this meant that I decided I no longer needed to walk, ever, which led to me discovering some very exciting things about it.
For instance, the Monorover starts beeping incessantly if it senses you're going too fast (according to the Monorover's manual, "too fast" is about six miles per hour). This isn't because the Monorover hates fun; it's because once you exceed its recommended speed, it starts bucking like nobody's business and inevitably tosses you off like a kid who's lost control of a swing.
Additionally, the current generation of the scooters aren't necessarily designed for sidewalks, or asphalt, or anything that isn't a totally smooth surface. The Monorover's manual urges the user to "relax your feet while driving with knees slightly bent, so you will maintain a balance on uneven ground." However, this doesn't exactly help when you're trying to ride over a pothole, or transitioning from the sidewalk onto the pavement to cross the street, or traveling in the general vicinity of a small rock. If you're going too slow, one of your wheels will invariably get stuck on the obstacle, causing one side of the scooter to shoot out from under your foot. If you're going over the obstacle too fast, the scooter will toss you off. Any misstep makes you look like a fool.
And the world is very interested in anyone riding one of these things looking like a fool. At this point in the personal transportation revolution, it's still a fair assumption that anyone wielding a Monorover is at least sort of a rich dickhead. While Monoroving to the laundromat one night, some guy yelled out of his car at me, "Hey, what do they call that thing? A cocksucker?"
On Twitter, Wiz Khalifa claimed that hoverboards/rap scooters/skywalkers/whatever were "the technology everyone will be using in the next six months." He's probably being a little overenthusiastic, but if they get safer and more stable, and a bit cheaper, they could become just another sight on the sidewalk, like bikes or regular scooters or skateboards. That's certainly not a bad thing: They're fun as hell, and anything that offers to bring a fun thing to more people is A-OK in my book. The only thing they need is a name.
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