Have you ever wondered how the hoverboard craze kicked off?
2015 saw the boom of several manufacturers pumping the toys onto the market and a big spike in holiday sales of the devices as well, all seemingly from nowhere.
The fad had to have a starting point, though, right?
It did, and we’re going to cut through some of the confusing history to see if we can learn more about the origins of this popular gadget and answer the question, when was the hoverboard invented?
Multiple Origin Stories
Tracking down a precise date is difficult because there are several claims as to who was first. This article from Wired says that the Chinese company Chic Robotics and their 2014 design is the most likely originator:
They go on to state that their initial run of scooters so impressed consumers that it sold like gangbusters after a large trade show, and imitators soon followed with cheap knock-offs, exporting them to American and priming the market for that 2015 hoverboard explosion.
An alternate telling of the tale, however, says that Shane Chen is the man who patented the original hoverboard. This report from NPR references his Kickstarter video from 2013 for the Hovertrax, adding that:
This is further corroborated by PatentYogi, whose research shows that Chen’s patent predates the Chic Robotics patent and that he built the first prototype for his device in 2012 to show off at Toy Fair.
What’s more, the deluge of imitators was producing more boards than Chen could ever have hoped to, and there’s wasn’t much he could do about it.
The Guardian recounted a story from Chen when he went to China to see what was going on:
Since Chen did hold a patent, however, he did launch an attempt to defend his invention against all the mimics.
The Patent Wars
Through his company, Inventist, Shane Chen started taking companies to court.
You can take a look at a timeline of the events here, but the main culprit was the aforementioned Chic Robotics and their hoverboard, the IO Hawk. Chen teamed up with investor Mark Cuban to facilitate this, but their partnership ended shortly after, with Cuban saying,
Nevertheless, Chen and Inventist were able to win their first lawsuit against Chic and the IO Hawk, but this did not end the patent war that was brewing over the hoverboard.
Segway entered the arena, suing Chen and Inventist, claiming that he had infringed on some of their patents in the process of creating the Hovertrax. From The Verge:
“The new suit names a number of related patents, but pays special attention to US Patent 6,302,230, which covers the Segway’s unique method of transportation, ‘particularly to balancing vehicles and methods for transporting individuals over ground having a surface that may be irregular.'”
The wars heated up, with Razor suing Swagway (not affiliated with Segway), Chic suing Razor, Segway suing both Swagway and Razor, and the legal waters becoming ever muddier. This culminated in the ITC’s General Exclusion Order that banned the import of all hoverboards into the United States not manufactured by Segway.
This meant that all the Chinese models were barred from entry to the States, and only American-made hoverboards could be purchased in American markets (much to the chagrin of the fans of models like the IO Hawk). For their part, Chen and Inventist are sticking to their guns. This statement was taken from the Kickstarter page for one of their newest products:
As of now, there has been no change to the order, and the patent disputes between other companies are still playing out.
Where Is Shane Chen Now?
Their Kickstarter for the project (which included a nice jab proclaiming Hovertrax as “the original hoverboard”) raised more than $200,000, and laid out their vision for this updated version of their original Solowheel:
“When we introduced our first Solowheel, we billed it as the smallest, greenest, most convenient e-vehicle ever invented. That title now goes to the Iota, which will have 8″ wheels and weigh as little as 8lbs. We have a working prototype and are now in the final stages of testing and fine-tuning.”
They are expecting this new iteration of the device to sell for $600, and the first batch to ship by September 2017.
Chen and his team are also envisioning their next product. They recently put up a poll on the company’s Facebook page, encouraging fans to vote on what direction their newest invention should take them in. It will be interesting to see where the road leads for the company that was instrumental in popularizing the hoverboard.