That One Time I Rode A Hoverboard With Tony Hawk
[Originally published on theridechannel.com with over 18m views.]
I rode a hoverboard with Tony Hawk.
I’ve been saying that a lot lately. Out loud. At all kinds of inopportune moments. Like, “Hey, sorry I didn’t get back to you, I was busy because I WAS RIDING A HOVERBOARD WITH TONY HAWK.” Or, “Ketchup? Oh yeah, that reminds of this time I WAS RIDING A HOVERBOARD WITH TONY HAWK.” Total dick.
But I really did ride a hoverboard with Tony Hawk. A totally real, not fake, working hoverboard. This isn’t any of that Funny Or Die bullshit. It’s real. The folks at Arx Pax dropped a press release and a video in October claiming that they have developed the technology to make shit hover. At the time, I interviewed the founders, Greg and Jill Henderson, and at the end of our interview they invited me up to their lab in Los Gatos to ride the hoverboard myself. I really like Greg and Jill, and I’m moved by their passion for hover technology, but I politely said, “Thank you,” and made no plans to take them up on their offer. I’m lazy. But then I saw Tony reposted their video on his Instagram feed.
“Hey Tony,” I said in an email, “wanna go ride the thing?”
“Let’s go,” was his response.
So I went to Los Gatos to go ride a hoverboard with Tony Hawk. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
“Were you guys bummed that Tony totally ruined the hoverboard scene before it even got started?” was the first thing I asked Greg and Jill when we arrived at their offices.
“Our hearts did sink for a moment,” Jill said about the Funny Or Die hoax. “But I think it raised awareness, because—what was it?—13 or 14 million pent up hoverboard fans wanted that and their dreams were shattered.”
“And hopefully you guys can sort of help convey to people that this technology works,” Greg added.
“It can’t be me,” Tony said. “Nobody believes me anymore. I’m the boy who cried hoverboard.”
The boy who cried hoverboard. That’s a good one. But he’s right, what reason do you have to believe this guy after that Funny Or Die hoax? I think he also said, “Hover or die,” at one point, which is another good line (I feel like he rehearsed these beforehand?), but when it comes to hovering, the dude’s a total liar. I wouldn’t believe a word he says if I hadn’t been there and seen him floating around above the ground with my own eyes. It’s real. Even if Tony’s a liar. Perhaps a brief description of the technology would be appropriate here?
The Hendo hover technology relies on magnets, which means the hoverboard can, for the time being, only hover over non-ferrous materials. When I first spoke to Greg and Jill I apologized for not being a scientist before I began asking stupid questions, like, “What does non-ferrous mean?” and “Why can’t I ride it down the street?”
“No worries about not being a scientist,” Greg said, “because neither are we. I’m an architect by trade and that’s where this technology came from. Right now what we have is essentially the Model-T [of hoverboards]. This is a proof of concept. And because we made this big leap in efficiency we are able now to do what other folks couldn’t do on a conductive material like aluminum or copper. As we optimize this system, ideally we’ll be able to go on other surfaces.”
“So, basically, it’s magnets,” I said. “Like two magnets repelling each other?”
“Yes,” Greg said. “So what we’re doing is we have a primary magnetic field and then we are creating a second magnet field in the conductive surface. There are four hover engines [on the bottom of the board], and that’s how we create that magnetic field in the surface we are riding on.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about, maybe you do, but ICP’s “Miracles” song has started to sound a lot less stupid since this hoverboard thing happened. “Water, fire, air, and dirt / Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Yeah, how do they fucking work?
If you’re like me, you may have thought, “Don’t they already have bullet trains or some shit that operate with magnets?” And they do. (They?) They’re called maglev trains.
“Maglev trains work using a couple different systems,” Greg explained. “In China, for instance, they use something called electro dynamic suspension (EDS). And EDS is very expensive, inherently unstable, and it can’t hover. There’s no way to move in all directions—it can only go on a track and it needs to be tightly measured through electro magnets and sensor technologies. We have figured out a more efficient way of transmitting electro magnetic energy and we’re able to do this without a track, or super cooling, or super conductors.”
Very well. So let’s see the thing.
Tony and I were escorted to a back room where their ramp is. The ramp is a curious structure in that it looks like a half pipe that someone who doesn’t skate would build: “a wooden U,” as I’ve sometimes heard parents call it. The Hendo ramp is, essentially, the bottom section of a very large pipe—there is no flat bottom—that is about 12 feet wide and cut off at around five feet. The transition was enormous because even at the five-foot mark it was basically a bank. We later learned this was because the hover engines function best on a flat surface, so the bigger the radius, the better.
A pair of scientists carried the hoverboard out and placed it in the center of a large platform in front of the ramp that was also covered with copper sheets, their non-ferrous material of choice.
“How much does a sheet of copper cost?” Tony asked.
“Well, copper’s about $3 per pound,” Greg said, “and a sheet weighs about 100 pounds, so around $300.” And you thought Skatelite was expensive?
The hoverboard is big and bulky and looks kind of like a small boogie board with speakers on the bottom. It weighs around 90 pounds. A real life rocket scientist lady held a remote control that controlled the engines. I thought I should have been the first to ride it, kind of like the opening band that no one wants to see, but Tony was offered first ride. Everyone put on safety glasses. I’m not sure why. Because that’s the scientist costume? I was told, before we arrived, that eye protection was mandatory, so I thought, “My snowboard goggles will look perfectly stupid.” I shared this idea with Tony before we left and apparently he agreed because he brought a pair of goggles as well. The rocket scientist fired up the engines. And lo and behold the hoverboard rose off the copper floor and floated about an inch above the surface. Seeing it on video is one thing, but in person it’s remarkable. The two scientists steadied the thing, and Tony mounted the hoverboard. The scientists let go. And Tony Hawk was hovering.
In the original Hendo YouTube video, a dude in a lab quote awkwardly rides it around the ramp and I had assumed he looked so awkward because he was a nerd in a lab coat who didn’t skate. But when I saw Tony riding it in an equally uncomfortable manner, it gave me pause.
Tony spun around in circles for a few seconds until the board carried him to the edge and he hopped off. The rocket scientist cut the engines and the board returned to earth. “It’s really weird,” Tony eventually managed to say. “It’s like a skim board that’s out of control.”
Next it was my turn. Unlike Tony I had opted to wear full pads in addition to my snowboard goggles. I want to be the Kevin Staab of hoverboarding. I also wore an orange safety vest to make it look even more dangerous. Same thing: the scientists held it up, the rocket scientist fired the engines, and I mounted the hoverboard. Unlike the scale in my bathroom that sinks under my weight, the hoverboard continued to hover. Holy fucking shit, I thought, I’m riding a fucking hoverboard. But before I could finish thinking “Holy fucking shit I’m riding a fucking hoverboard” I was no longer riding a fucking hoverboard. Describing it as “a skim board that’s out of control” is an understatement. I had arrived with all kinds of silly ideas to do on the hoverboard, but after my first spin on the thing I realized that all of my hover dreams were way too ambitious. But I did ride it. Although “ride” isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like I stood on it and it kind of went wherever it wanted.
“You guys want to try it on the ‘pipe?” Greg asked. I like when people who don’t skate call it a ‘pipe. It’s cute.
On flat ground, I had gained some confidence, I was miming backside smith grinds, and Tony had even done a couple of shove-its—“That’s my flat ground routine,” he said. “Rodney would be proud,” I replied—but I now knew that being skateboarders wasn’t going to give us any advantage on the giant transition copper ramp.
I had arrived hoping to employ the Jackass philosophy of “the worse I do, the better,” but on the ramp I couldn’t even get on the thing long enough to make a proper ass of myself. I just made an ass of myself. The thing is really hard to ride. Even Tony had a lot of difficulty trying to figure it out. The expression on his face was priceless. The great Tony Hawk was confused. I could tell what he was thinking: “I’m a skateboarder. I ride skateboards. I ride surfboards. I ride snowboards—why can’t I ride this board?” I just accepted my fate: I can’t ride it. But Tony was determined to complete a run on the hoverboard and actually make a trick. Because he’s Tony Hawk. After much trial and error, he discovered that a low, survival-stance squat was the best approach and he eventually managed to pump back and forth on the ramp, albeit spinning wildly out of control and careening off the railings. As I said, we had arrived with all kinds of hopes and dreams (I had planned to do a hoverboard Texas-plant into the ramp off the top railing), but the only one that remained even somewhat possible was making a Bertlemann—one of the earliest and easiest skateboard tricks to perform. Tony did succeed in making a Bert on a hoverboard, but it took forever. It was like being on tour and you’re at a spot and the dude can’t land a switch kickflip nosegrind or something, and you’re just like, “Cmonnnnnnnn. Fucking land it already.” But he did. Tony made the first ever Bert done on a hoverboard. We all rejoiced. Hooray.
The possibilities of this hover technology are mind-boggling. I’m less interested in the hoverboards than I am in hover leisure activities. Like a hover Lazy Boy chair? Remember the movie Wall-E, and all the fat people floating around in lounge chairs? But Greg and Jill have all kinds of important ideas.
“Transportation is obvious,” Greg said, “but factory automation is another important one. The underlying technology can go into all sorts of areas you would never imagine. In health care, for instance, food processing, and, our personal favorite, seismic isolation: hovering buildings. That’s where this concept came from. As I mentioned, I’m an architect, and Jill and I are very passionate about being able to protect people’s lives and property from the destruction of Mother Nature’s bad days. In particular: earthquakes. And so that’s where this started and ultimately where Jill and I would like to take this technology.”
“Whooooa,” I said in total stoner voice. “Hovering buildings… if they’re not attached to the ground, then… that’s way more amazing than a hoverboard.”
“I’m glad you recognize that,” Greg said, “because the hoverboard really is just a way of capturing people’s attention and getting this technology out there into everyone’s hands. Right now what we have is essentially the Model-T [of hoverboards]. This is a proof of concept. It’s an opportunity to explore this technology and inspire co-creation on a global scale because there are problems we don’t even know about. It is still early days, but we are absolutely thrilled because we have proven conclusively that what was widely considered impossible is, in fact, possible.”
Yeah. So the hoverboard is real. It’s hard as shit to ride, and the technology is in its infancy, but it is real.
You can learn more about the Hendo hoverboard, their Kickstarter campaign, and get your own hover engine, at: