The rise and fall of the hoverboard

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Are Hoverboards Dangerous?

About a month after U.S. officials declared hoverboards unsafe, Martha Stewart -- long the undisputed queen of American domestic excellence -- is delighting as she rides one barefoot through a posh hallway on her way to a celebrity dinner.

The sight is so familiar now that it's almost cliché: a celebrity on a hoverboard, gushing childlike exuberance, as her entourage looks on and waits for the inevitable social media post.

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The rise and fall of the hoverboard
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO
Photo courtesy: WGNO

But no matter what you think of Stewart or her (lack of) skill in piloting a "self-balancing electric scooter" (the semi-official name for hoverboards), the scene sends a clear message: Hoverboards are officially over.

Like Stewart's sudden fall from grace following her 2004 conviction and federal prison stint, the end of the hoverboard was swift and framed by controversy. Hoverboards have been so entangled with celebrity culture that Stewart's late-to-the-party hoverboard flourish may be the perfect representative tableau. But like all great metaphorical images, far more interesting is the story of how the image came to be.

The hoverboard appears to be in the final throes of a death spiral, slipping down the drain of tech history these past few months -- following in the footsteps of the Tamagotchi, MiniDisc players and netbooks.

But if you were paying attention, all the signs of a fad were there: rapid and blind adoption by the celebrity class, scores of out-of-nowhere brands you've never heard of all offering the same product, and, of course, zero safety certifications.

That last point turned out to be the crucial detail that ultimately led to the hoverboard's ignominious fall.

CES beginnings

For many, it all started in Las Vegas. The IO Hawk hoverboard rolled into the halls of the Venetian hotel during CES 2015 and quickly became one of the trade show's most talked-about devices. Reactions were mixed, from skepticism (it screamed "cheap gimmick") to bewilderment from tech veterans regarding its provenance.

Why? Well, anyone who remembered the debut of the Segway back in 2001 immediately drew a comparison between Dean Kamen's ill-fated transportation device and this new "hoverboard," a name that stuck despite the scooter's inability to hover. Both moved as a result of a balancing motion from the rider. The only apparent difference was that hoverboards eliminated the Segway's steering column. Just before the Segway's debut, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was quoted as saying the device would change the way cities were built.

In the years following its reveal by Kamen, the Segway failed to draw much interest from the public. It eventually became something of a tech-geek punchline, much like Google Glass. It was permanently marked with the taint of uncool.

That's why the appearance of hoverboards in 2015 at CES was jarring to some. Hadn't we already declared this kind of thing over?

Not quite.


Celebrity rides

The original idea behind the Segway -- near-effortless transportation for an individual -- gained new life by simply removing the steering shaft. It was a design move that, for some, moved it into the realm of street cool standard-bearers like the electric skateboard. Here was a skateboard anyone could ride like an expert with just a minimal amount of practice.

Soon, the hoverboard began showing up on Facebook and Twitter as trend-hunting hipsters and celebrities alike showed off their balancing feats (and, just as often, falls).

Rapper Wiz Khalifa made headlines when he was arrested for riding his hoverboard in LAX airport. Musicians like Justin Bieber, Chris Brown and Skrillex were frequently seen riding various brands of hoverboards in public. Actor Jamie Foxx rode onto the set of Jimmy Fallon on one.

Even the 2015 NBA Finals took a tech turn when J.R. Smith arrived at the championships on a hoverboard. (His team lost just days later.)

In November, things got so crazy that a rapper named J Staxx devoted an entire song to the device called "My Hoverboard." The rather NSFW music video features a hoverboard in a number of outlandish scenes, including one in which the device is cradled lovingly, swathed in baby clothes.

Yes, really.

At one point, the hoverboard craze saw some owners riding them on streets of New York City alongside fast moving cars, weaving in and out of traffic.

Rapper J Staxx in a scene from "My Hoverboard" in one of the few safe-for-work scenes.

Even heavyweight boxing legend Mike Tyson gave everyone a good chuckle when he wiped out on one at his home just a few days after Christmas 2015. What many laughing fans overlooked is the fact that Tyson was forced to go to the emergency room to treat the injuries from his hoverboard fall.

#hoverboard #knockout #MikeTysonBreaksBack #imtoooldforthisshit @getcyboard

A video posted by Mike Tyson (@miketyson) on

Tyson wasn't alone. Late last year the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began receiving numerous reports of serious hoverboard falls, many of which required an emergency room visit to treat broken bones.

The (literal) explosion

But the risk of falls was just the beginning. The other danger quietly lurking in the homes of many hoverboard owners was even more serious: exploding battery fires. News of hoverboard fires began as a trickle, apparent aberrations involving a mostly safe device.

And then the trickle became a torrent.

Some of the first burning reports cropped up in the UK, where the hoverboard caught on almost as quickly as it did in the U.S. And while U.S. retailers moved slowly in terms of addressing the safety of the device, UK retail outlets moved swiftly, ordering a recall in December, specifically related the fire hazard concerns connected to the devices. The recalls were prompted by an advisory from National Trading Standards, a local consumer protection organization.

I arrived in London just two weeks before the UK's Crown Prosecution Service reminded the public that hoverboards were prohibited on pubic streets. Strolling along the more tourist-packed stretches of the Thames and in the hipster confines of Shoreditch, I noticed quite a few hoverboards over the course of my two weeks in the city.

Over 16-thousand seized counterfeit hoverboards sit in a warehouse in Chicago awaiting further processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.


In an attempt to gauge which hoverboard brand was leading the pack in the UK, I made my way to the historic Tottenham Court Road in central London. Famed since the '50s for its consumer electronics and computer repair shops, the street is no longer as robust a tech hub, but is still a must-visit for gearheads.

A quick stop at Maplin, a kind of UK version of Radio Shack, revealed hoverboards front and center in the store's window and interior displays. When I asked the retail associate if the one on display (the "Air Board") was the most popular in the country, he answered honestly: There are just too many brands out there to tell for sure.

Maplin's Air Board sold for 599 pounds (approx. $855) in the UK before it was recalled. (Photo courtesy: Adario Strange/Mashable)

This became a familiar refrain. Although some some names, like Swagway and PhunkeeDuck began to be looked at as the de facto leaders in the space, the category was so new that it was hard to tell whether that status was based on sales or just savvy marketing. Most brands are indistinguishable from one another. There is no "iPhone of hoverboards."

The raft of hoverboard brands in the U.S., most apparently from China, flooded the market and hit new heights of popularity just before the Christmas season. Right after that, there was an uptick in hoverboard fire reports domestically, even as celebrities continued to ride and promote them on television and social media.

Although hoverboards are sold under many different brands, they're all essentially the same design. (Photo courtesy: Jhila Farzaneh/Mashable

Although lagging behind the UK, the U.S. finally began taking action. First the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning about the lack of hoverboard safety standards in December, just before Christmas, with a follow-up warning in January.

Meanwhile, the list of universities, airlines and public transportation systems banning the device over safety concerns grew. In response, some retailers quietly removed the devices from their stores, but many more kept selling them.

Then in February, the big news came. No more warnings: The U.S. government had officially declared any hoverboard on the market unsafe. In the announcement, the CPSC cited the lack of UL safety certification for any hoverboard brand, even though some brands erroneously pointed consumers to either the UL certification of individual components or an outright fake label.

Following that declaration, major retailers, including Amazon, Target, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Toys 'R' Us and others, pulled the device from shelves -- real and virtual. With most of the larger stores shutting hoverboard sales down, consumers unconcerned or unaware of the safety issues were left to fend for themselves at smaller retail outlets and online markets.

The Swagway X1. (Photo courtesy: Jhila Farzaneh/Mashable)

But even the few remaining ways to buy a hoverboard in the U.S. are evaporating now that Segway, which claims to hold the patents for the balancing technology that hoverboards use, won an important court battle. On March 16, the International Trade Commission began barring the unlicensed entry into the U.S. of "certain personal transporters" infringing on Segway's patents.

What all this means is that it's now a lot harder to find a hoverboard for sale in the U.S. at a trusted retailer. Any that are still for sale aren't UL certified. They're still out there, but "beware" doesn't begin to illustrate the risks to both the retailer and the buyer at this point.

Riding again?

So, is the hoverboard gone from our lives forever? Probably not.

Despite the steep decline in the presence of hoverboards on the streets of the U.S. in recent weeks, three factors will dictate their future: a willingness on the part of manufacturers to secure UL certification, ponying up the resources to acquire a license from Segway and, of course, the public's taste.

Fittingly, the last factor is the most important. Now that hoverboards have been tainted with pop-culture scorn by no less than the satirical blade of Saturday Night Live, the device could, like Google Glass, and even the Segway before it, be too far gone to ever regain its cool cachet.

We'll likely know soon, as the first properly licensed and UL-certified hoverboards inevitably hit the market later this year. And even then it will take more than legal and safety certifications for mass transit, airline authorities and the like to walk back their anti-hoverboard biases.

The 30th anniversary of "Back to the Future" on "Good Morning America" on 10/21/15. (Photo courtesy: FRED LEE/ABC)

Perhaps the hoverboard's interrupted path to becoming a mainstream staple was a blessing. The incorrectly named device ironically achieved its highest popularity right around the time Back to the Future predicted we'd have hoverboards that, you know, hover.

While real hoverboards exist, they're extremely limited in that they require a special surface to ride them on. This ensures they'll probably never even be a product, much less go mainstream. Still, now that the devices that co-opted the name have stumbled, there's a vacuum in the rideables category.

Everything from an electric Razor clone to a revamped Segway is looking to capitalize on the short-lived hoverboard craze, though the best bet so far might be the Scoot E Bike. Besides boasting an efficient folding design, the bike has celebrity cred from the likes of Diddy, Snoop and the NBA's Steph Curry.

The hoverboard will certainly return. The new safety-certified version will make its case to reclaim the crown of most-desired rideable. Given its ease of use, the gadget could just pull this off. However -- the Martha Stewarts of the world notwithstanding -- there's a good chance that by the time hoverboards come back, they'll find they've re-emerged in a world that's moved on.

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