"It felt like floating on water, that same buoyancy, but in the air," says Ricardo Williams, the last of a few lucky attendees who got to test drive the Hendo Hoverboard at Smithsonian magazine's "Future is Here" festival this past weekend. The demonstration on Saturday evening, run by Arx Pax, the company that developed the product, and its founders Greg and Jill Henderson, rounded out a day of exciting presentations on the future of our brains, bodies, lifestyles and planet—leaving the audience spellbound.
The Hendo Hoverboard has been several years in the making. The idea first struck Greg, an Army lieutenant turned architect, in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California. He and Jill both felt like hover technology could prevent some of the catastrophic damage they had witnessed and change the way that structures are able to coexist with the environment around them. "If we can hover a train, why not a building?" he asks. As a way to make the idea more accessible and test its feasibility, the couple decided to build a hoverboard, capitalizing on the wonder the science-fiction device has generated since its storied debut in the 1989 movie "Back to the Future Part II."
The inventors still have a ways to go before their product lives up to the movie's imagining of what it would be like in 2015. The model they demonstrated at "Future is Here"—a wide, gleaming black skateboard without the wheels—isn't self-sufficient just yet; it's controlled via a remote and a team helping to guide the rider. The board can hover for 10 minutes, about an inch off the ground, and hold up to 450 pounds. Right now, it requires a copper surface beneath it to operate and emits a loud buzzing sound when in use. Four circular engines in the board use magnets to generate a magnetic field, pushing against the magnetic field the copper provides. As the forces repel each other, the board is able to remain suspended.
"If you close your eyes while riding it, it feels like you're flying," says Jill. The Hendersons are continuing to refine the product and test out different prototypes, one of which has even held a chair. Later this year, they will officially ship consumer hoverboards to those who donated $10,000 or more to a Kickstarter campaign last fall, which raised more than $500,000 in funds.
The "magnetic field architecture" technology that serves as the backbone of the hoverboard is something the Hendersons envision being used across many industries and products, including transportation. "We see the next major application in industrial automation, but are definitely looking for partners to figure out what that looks like," says Greg. The team has released a Whitebox developer kit for any engineers who may be interested in experimenting with the technology.
The hoverboard, as fantastical as it is, is just the beginning.