You don't have to be overly nitpicky to get upset that handleless Segways are now known by the masses as "hoverboards." But most people don't really have a personal stake in what we call our gadgets.
Then I met the inventors of a real, honest-to-goodness hoverboard.
"Everybody asks me—whenever there's another quote unquote hoverboard exploding, I always get a bunch of emails from my friends joking, saying 'What the hell are you doing,'" Scott Santandrea, head of business development at Arx Pax, which sells the Hendo Hoverboard—which actually hovers—told me. "I have to say it's not us. It has nothing to do with us. We developed a technology that creates electromagnetic fields, which can create lift of up to 700 pounds with the scalability to get up to thousands."
"It makes us crazy, it really does," he added. Segways without handles "are an interesting technology and it requires a lot of control to make it work right, but it has nothing to do with what we're doing. We're trying to solve a problem that has meaningful industrial implications and major impacts in the ways people build things. We consider those things to be cool toys but not anywhere in the league we make our stuff."
Arx Pax launched the Hendo Hoverboard in a much-hyped Kickstarter in late 2014, and is currently working on improving the technology and making the board a little more wieldy. The technology's most likely final purpose, as Santandrea hinted, isn't to be a consumer product but to be something used in infrastructure. That's because the Hendo Hoverboard floats using "hover engines" that use arrays of fast-spinning magnets to generate lift. This process only work when they're above a conductive substance, such as copper. It's quite expensive to lay a sheet of copper over all our sidewalks and roads, but it's reasonable to lay one on a train track, or maybe even in a hyperloop tube.
"Our hoverboard works on a half pipe, so, by definition it will work on banked turns," Santandrea told me. "If you make a hyperloop and need to make it affordable, you have to decide between going through a mountain or around a mountain—going through a mountain is really expensive, going around a mountain is much cheaper … we can help guide the hyperloop pod through turns."
That potential future is why Arx Pax was at the SpaceX Hyperloop Design Challenge last weekend, where it was demoing the technology to students who hope to build Elon Musk's futuristic tube-based transport system.
In fact, Arx Pax has found a new business market by selling "hyperloop developer kits" to the teams trying to work on solving Musk's engineering problem. The developer kit consists of four hover engines and a few other parts that make it possible to build a working hyperloop scale model. Santandrea says the company has sold "dozens" of them.
The company says it's got its hovering technology working quite well (in demos at the hyperloop competition, Arx Pax employees effortlessly controlled hover engines with a remote control and rode the Hendo Hoverboard without much difficulty). The next step is bringing down the cost of the conductive substrate.
"Today, copper is most efficient but we're working on trying to deposit the conductive substrate as paint or concrete. It'd give you the possibility to take spray paint and go over city streets," he said. "You're talking about a reduction from on the order of tens of dollars per square foot to something that's tenths of cents a square foot."
So the future of hovering might be in subway cars that operate on a track "but can move itself around the railyard" or trains that "take you to your destination then leave the track and stop and drive along a city street." The future of hovering might be on a hyperloop. Or, finally, we might just get the hoverboard future we've always wanted.
"We're trying to bring the cost down," he said. "We're trying to make it accessible and easier to use."