Episode 666: The Hoverboard Life : Planet Money The hottest toy this holiday season has no identifiable logo, no main distributor, and no widely agreed upon name. Today, we seek out the origin of the hands-free, two wheeled, self-balancing scooter.
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Episode 666: The Hoverboard Life

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Episode 666: The Hoverboard Life

Episode 666: The Hoverboard Life

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

A couple months ago, this guy Deshawn Boston stepped onto something that looked sort of like a skateboard from the future.

DESHAWN BOSTON: And it was just fun. It was like I was like a kid again. So I'm like I need one, I need one, I need one.

ROBERT SMITH: Oh, he got one.

AUDREY QUINN, HOST:

Deshawn's actually my neighbor, and I was coming home one day, and I see him zooming down my sidewalk.

ROBERT SMITH: And they really do zoom.

QUINN: He's riding what looks like a sideways skateboard, but it seems to be moving forward just by mind control.

ROBERT SMITH: Yeah, I see these everywhere. They're motorized. They're self-balancing.

BOSTON: I don't walk anymore. Ever since I had it I haven't walked anymore. I take it everywhere I go.

QUINN: What does it feel like when you're, like, you're going down the sidewalk. There's all these suckers just walking and you're on this - you're on this board. What's that feel like?

BOSTON: I feel like I'm on a hoverboard (laughter).

ROBERT SMITH: Hoverboard.

QUINN: Hoverboard's actually one of the most common names for the thing.

ROBERT SMITH: But people don't really know what to call them. I've heard it called a smartboard.

QUINN: Deshawn prefers sky walker (ph).

BOSTON: The name on them is really a Swagway. That's the actual name of it, but it's called a sky walker.

ROBERT SMITH: (Laughter) Or if you want to be technical, it is a hands-free, two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter. Although, I admit, swagway is a better name.

QUINN: If this were a normal product, you could just call up the manufacturers, or whoever invented it originally, and ask them what do you call this thing.

ROBERT SMITH: You wouldn't even need to ask. There would be ads everywhere, logos everywhere, we would all know the name of the thing.

QUINN: But that's what's so weird about this swag-sky-hover-stick-whatever (ph).

ROBERT SMITH: Scooter thing.

QUINN: The origin is a complete mystery.

Where do they come from?

BOSTON: I'm not too - I don't know (laughter).

ROBERT SMITH: We don't know either. There appears to be no original hoverboard that was ripped off by a thousand generics. They all seem to be generics. And they just came out of nowhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith, here today with reporter Audrey Quinn who brought us this story. Welcome.

QUINN: Hey, Robert.

ROBERT SMITH: And today on the show, we send you, Audrey, out to find who invented the hoverboard scooter.

QUINN: And by the way, we bought one. All right, are you going to try it?

ROBERT SMITH: All right, I'm going to try it. Whoa - oh my - no - it's like (laughter) it's like stepping on a pet.

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ROBERT SMITH: First, a language warning, especially if you have small children in the room - for the sake of simplicity, we are going to call them hoverboards. Yes, I know you saw "Back To The Future." It's not a true hoverboard, it doesn't ride on air, but please don't write us to complain. We're just going to call it a hoverboard.

QUINN: All right, so I want to buy a hoverboard. How do I do it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You just come by over here and pick which one you want. We have three models. You got the basic. You have the transformer, the one that looks like the Lamborghini. And you have the Bluetooth model.

QUINN: I went to a hoverboard pop up shop. It's this open storefront on a busy Manhattan street. The salesman told me the brand does not matter. They're all the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm going to put them in the bag for you and get you set up, all right, get you good to go. Welcome to the hoverboard life.

ROBERT SMITH: The hoverboard life - I take it these things didn't come with tags on them telling you exactly where they came from.

QUINN: No, and I asked the sales guy if he knew where they came from. He says he gets them from an importer in LA. Where does the importer guy in LA get them from? He said he wasn't sure, just somewhere in China.

ROBERT SMITH: So as part of this quest, it was mandatory for us to ride around the office for - what - three, four, five hours.

QUINN: (Laughter) There was no work getting done.

ROBERT SMITH: No, no, no, this was work because the plan was for us to pry this overboard apart and look inside, see where the parts came from.

QUINN: I brought our hoverboard to this place called Tomorrow Lab. It's this big loft space with all these workbenches, a whole room full of tools, drawers upon drawers of electronics parts.

ROBERT SMITH: These guys take things apart for a living.

TED ULLRICH: Are you sad?

QUINN: I'm really sad.

PEPIN GELARDI: Are you worried that we're not going to put it back together?

QUINN: Yeah, like, what if it's never the same?

GELARDI: It probably won't be.

QUINN: Ted Ullrich and Pepin Gelardi are industrial designers. That means they like to figure out how things work, figure out how to make them better, and they were super excited to get inside of our hoverboard.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Whoa.

ROBERT SMITH: That is the sound of people seriously geeking out on these cool motors inside the wheels. There's a big lithium-ion battery in there, a bunch of wires, some writing - not surprisingly - in Chinese.

QUINN: And Pepin doesn't speak Chinese, but he's spent a good deal of time in China, especially in this one industrial city called Shenzhen.

ROBERT SMITH: Shenzhen is famous for its cellphones. You're probably listening to this show on a device made in Shenzhen.

QUINN: And the parts in the hoverboard looked familiar to Pepin.

GELARDI: Having been to the Shenzhen electronic market, I think you can find, like, all of these things on, like, the first floor. Like, it's - I think what's really surprising about it is how simple it is.

ROBERT SMITH: OK, so we can narrow it down to a tiny little city of Shenzhen, which is - what - 10 million people?

QUINN: Ten to 15 million.

ROBERT SMITH: (Laughter) OK, and why not just call up the one hoverboard maker in Shenzhen?

QUINN: I tried. So I went on the Chinese manufacturing website Alibaba.

ROBERT SMITH: Which is like Amazon.com, yeah.

QUINN: I searched for two-wheeled hoverboard scooter Shenzhen. I found over 1,200 different hoverboard suppliers in Shenzhen.

ROBERT SMITH: So it was time to stay up late and call them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

VICKY HUANG: Hello.

QUINN: Hello, can you hear me?

VICKY HUANG: Hello.

QUINN: Hi, can you hear me?

VICKY HUANG: Hello?

QUINN: Hello?

VICKY HUANG: Can you hear me?

QUINN: So I started reaching out to these hoverboard manufacturers. I got in touch with a bunch of their sales reps. And they all told me pretty much the same thing. They didn't know who made the first hoverboard. They all just started making them about two years ago.

ROBERT SMITH: Now, it's tempting to think that, like, these are just salespeople, so of course they wouldn't know. But the more we talked about it around here the more a different possibility came up. Maybe this is one of those scenarios where there literally is no inventor.

QUINN: Which is really hard to believe. But you have to understand how these smaller factories in Shenzhen work and by smaller I mean, like, 100 to 200 people. They got their start making knockoff cellphones. And now a lot of them have started making products of their own. And how they do this is through this super collaborative network. I called this engineer Bunnie Huang. He's based in Singapore. He gets a lot of his stuff made in Shenzhen.

BUNNIE HUANG: These guys started out as line engineers, right, who learned more about their stuff. They were maybe working for Western companies, like Nokia or whatever in the day. And they say my boss is an idiot. I quit, right? I'm going to start my own company because I can do it better than they can.

QUINN: They do it better by being super specialized. It's crazy. There's, like, hundreds of factories just for wheels, hundreds of factories for circuit boards, hundreds of factories for motors. And even though everyone makes their own thing, they're not possessive about their ideas. Their design plans, they just post them up on online bulletin boards. Nobody worries about who had the idea first.

BUNNIE HUANG: Just, you know, you give me an idea, I take an idea. And then you and me have more ideas I go to you for more business is the network.

QUINN: That's just so counter to the U.S. kind of patent system, right? Like, it's like bartering ideas.

BUNNIE HUANG: It is, it is. You're bartering ideas is exactly right. And it's not like people are like, you know, I can't be assigned rights to this patent. Forget about it. I don't want to build phones. I'm going to farm rice instead because I have no incentive to innovate, right?

ROBERT SMITH: If anything, the people in Shenzhen are spurred to innovate faster.

QUINN: And here's the way that they could've come up with something like a hoverboard spontaneously. I called up David Li. He's an entrepreneur. He runs an innovation lab in Shenzhen. And he says this sort of process usually starts at a bar or maybe a dinner party.

DAVID LI: You sit down at a dinner with 15 people.

QUINN: These 15 people are from the factories that build, say, wheels, motors, circuit boards. And at these dinner parties, there usually is a lot of drinking.

LI: You drink, you get drunk and...

QUINN: Then you start talking about all the cool stuff you could make, like maybe a Segway without that dorky handlebar part.

LI: And the next morning, people wake up and some of them will just go and do it.

QUINN: And that's what makes a new product, you come up with all these features when you're drunk.

LI: Yeah, well, they talk about the future when they are drunk. And the next morning, after hangover, some of them actually remember.

QUINN: I wish my nights out with friends were that productive.

LI: Yeah.

ROBERT SMITH: The thing that I love about this is that these manufacturers just go out and do it. They don't try and figure out who came up with the idea first. It's just one group of people saying I got wheels, I got motors, I got circuit boards, put them together. Boom, it sells.

QUINN: To me, it almost seems like magic that a full product could emerge from a collection of parts. Like, how is that possible?

LI: Yeah, well, I mean, that's what they say about evolution, right?

QUINN: That's what they say about evolution, right.

ROBERT SMITH: Yeah, but even in evolution things have to come out of something else. There has to be some sort of family tree. And I don't know if this makes me some sort of. like. technological creationist or something, but I still suspect that somebody had the spark of an idea of a hoverboard first.

QUINN: You are not alone in that suspicion. I'd been talking with those Chinese hoverboard sales reps and I got in touch with this woman Vicky Huang. She works for a company called Shenzhen Winreepower Technology Co., Ltd.

Any idea who was first?

VICKY HUANG: There is a Chinese guy, but he is in America now.

QUINN: There's a Chinese guy, but he's in America now.

VICKY HUANG: I know his Chinese name, but I'm not sure his English name.

QUINN: She messaged me later. His English name is Shane Chen.

ROBERT SMITH: Shane Chen - we have a name.

QUINN: Google Shane Chen and you find a guy who lives outside of Portland, Ore., a Kickstarter campaign and this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The Hovertrax is built for fun and transport. You can use it at the park, to get around school, a warehouse or even the airport. The idea behind...

ROBERT SMITH: Oh, there is totally a woman with a plaid shirt, of course, this is outside of Portland, riding on this little thing that looks almost exactly like our hoverboard except it's called Hovertrax, which is an even better name, right?

QUINN: It is. It's a little bit smaller than our hoverboard, a little bit simpler looking, but the important thing here is look at the date.

ROBERT SMITH: Where's the date?

QUINN: May 2013.

ROBERT SMITH: And...

QUINN: OK, I can't prove this, but I went into a bit of a YouTube wormhole on two-wheeled self-balancing scooters.

ROBERT SMITH: And...

QUINN: They do not exist before May 2013.

ROBERT SMITH: Shane Chen is the missing like.

QUINN: That's what I was thinking, so I called him up.

SHANE CHEN: My name is Shane Chen. I'm kind of inventor, just, you know, invent for a living.

QUINN: Shane is not about this Shenzhen system. He is your classic inventor. Think about something you might have dreamed up in high school science class, Shane has invented that. He's got a product that skips across water, some roller skates with extra wheels on them. Shane left China in the mid-'80s. He came to the U.S. He wanted an environment that was more welcoming to a guy who wanted to own his own ideas.

CHEN: Well, I have ideas, like, daily, sometimes hourly.

QUINN: Did you have any ideas today?

CHEN: Yes (laughter).

QUINN: Can you tell me?

CHEN: Probably not a good idea to do that.

QUINN: He says it was 2011 when he got the idea for the Hovertrax. He patented it. He made a prototype. He put up the Kickstarter with the video. And this video, he thinks the Chinese manufacturers may have seen it, copied the Hovertrax to make their hoverboards.

CHEN: They look a little different but still using the same concept.

ROBERT SMITH: OK, same concept, but we were really curious, like, is it the same inside and that's why we decided to pry apart our precious, precious hoverboard.

QUINN: We took Shane's patent, took a look at that, looked at some diagrams of his Hovertrax on the Kickstarter campaign. And what he has inside the Hovertrax, there's a lithium-ion battery...

ROBERT SMITH: And that's in ours obviously.

QUINN: There's also motors inside the wheels.

ROBERT SMITH: Yeah, which we talked about, yeah.

QUINN: And then to keep the whole thing up, there's these complicated little parts called gyro sensors.

ROBERT SMITH: Which is like a gyroscope, which, if anyone's played with it, helps determine direction, right? Something like that.

QUINN: Yeah, yeah, maintains balance. So our big question for Ted and Pepin in the lab was how did the PLANET MONEY scooter balance?

GELARDI: When I saw it I assumed that it was, like, doing it gyroscopically, so like a Segway, yeah.

ULLRICH: But I don't think it is. I don't think that there's any accelerometry or gyroscopitry (ph).

ROBERT SMITH: Are we sure that these guys are legit - gyroscopitry?

QUINN: Regardless, it wasn't in there. What was in there instead was two switches underneath each footpad, one that directed movement forward, one that directs movement back.

GELARDI: That's weird. Like, that's really weird and it's really cool because, like, by creating that little loop you've now achieved everything that's in the Segway, which is a very complicated system with a lot of smarts in it. And you've sort of short-circuited it and, like, utilized some, like, kind of natural, physical feedback loop that a human being is able to figure out.

QUINN: It looks like the Chinese manufacturers figured out a different way to do the same thing as the Hovertrax.

ROBERT SMITH: But I guess there's still the question of whether the Chinese stole it from Shane. You know, this could be one of those things, like - what do they call it - convergent evolution, right? You know, birds fly, insects fly but they're not related. They both came up with flying in a different way. So I guess there is a possibility that everyone in Shenzhen and Shane came up with the idea of the hoverboard simultaneously.

QUINN: This is usually something that would get settled in a court of law, and Shane did try suing some of these hoverboard manufacturers.

ROBERT SMITH: And I imagine at the time, like he is trying to build his company. He's trying to make these Hovertrax. You know, he's got to design a box and and a logo. He's got to set up this whole manufacturing thing.

QUINN: Yeah, he didn't get very far because by then there were hundreds and hundreds of these manufacturers making their own hoverboards.

ROBERT SMITH: They beat him to market.

QUINN: Yep, and he blames himself.

CHEN: I'm not very good business person, not very good at marketing.

ROBERT SMITH: You know, it's amazing, for hundreds of years we've had this patent system. And we often debate around here whether patents are a good thing or a bad thing and how long patents should last. But now it seems like the cycle of manufacturing is getting so fast that this question becomes in some cases irrelevant. I mean, if hundreds of factories can swarm on your idea, they can make it better, they can sell it before you can, I guess it's like a Zen question, right? Does it matter if you even invented it 'cause they've already beaten you?

QUINN: And by the time you get a law suit decided, everyone will have moved on to the next way, maybe a true hoverboard - no wheels, all air.

ROBERT SMITH: See, just by you saying that you're probably going to get ripped off. Already there are manufacturers in Shenzhen working on that. By the time the podcast is over you'll be just like Shane. You'll be out of the money.

QUINN: Yeah, but Shane's doing all right. His Hovertrax, he's selling it online and he's partnered with Razor. They're the makers of those popular kids' scooters. They're going to give him money for some of his ideas.

ROBERT SMITH: So he gets something out of it.

QUINN: And here's the part that gets me. He says that he's actually kind of excited to see how big these knockoff hoverboard scooters have gotten.

ROBERT SMITH: Even if no one is ever going to call it a Hovertrax, which is clearly the best name.

QUINN: I'm telling you, the cool kids in my neighborhood, they call it sky walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SMITH: Just to make sure, like, it is working. They did put it back together.

QUINN: Mostly.

Wait, there's four extra screws here.

GELARDI: Four extra screws.

ULLRICH: They're small so they probably - you'll hear a rattle.

ROBERT SMITH: I am totally aces at this thing now. I'm just going to zip around the PLANET MONEY news room. You know, and we always like to hear what you think of today's show. Alex Goldmark, senior producer, tell them how to do it.

ALEX GOLDMARK: You're looking good. OK, people can get in touch by emailing us at planetmoney@npr.org or tweet us - @planetmoney.

ROBERT SMITH: Yeah, I got to go 'cause I'm zipping. Stacey Vanek Smith, tell me who produced today's show.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Hi, Robert, wasn't it Nick Fountain?

ROBERT SMITH: Oh, yeah, I can just zip over there, one second. Nick - oh - sorry (laughter) Nick, you're the producer. Cut that part. Tell everyone what they should listen to now that they're done with PLANET MONEY.

NICK FOUNTAIN: One of our favorite podcasts around these parts is Ask Me Another. It's a really...

ROBERT SMITH: They work here in our office.

FOUNTAIN: They work here in our office. It's a really funny trivia show I saw live just a few weeks ago. You can get it on iTunes, of course, wherever you get your podcasts - npr.org/podcasts or the NPR One app.

ROBERT SMITH: Well, I'm not getting back on this thing. Audrey, take it away for the end of the show.

QUINN: I'm Audrey Quinn.

ROBERT SMITH: (Laughter) OK, and I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening. You're going, like, one inch an hour.

QUINN: (Laughter).

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