Drive south past Vasona Lake in Los Gatos, Calif., and you’ll land at a suburban business park resembling all the other suburban business parks in Silicon Valley, a collection of low-slung, cream-colored buildings spaced out by blacktop and meager plots of trees.
But odds are fairly good this is the only one where a high-tech tenant has constructed a copper half-pipe in their office suite.
I visited the tiny, cluttered headquarters of Arx Pax last Wednesday. In fact, I felt morally and professionally compelled to after reading the subject line of an email early last week: “Sneak Peak: Working Hover Technology.”
My mind immediately leaped to the elaborate hoax that Funny or Die pulled off earlier this year, when a video purportedly showing skate legend Tony Hawk riding the “HUVr” product went viral. But I was assured that, in this case, there were literally no strings attached — and not only could I see the hoverboard in person, I could ride the thing.
So let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Yes, it works. But with a very, very big caveat.
Unlike the hoverboard that Marty McFly steered around the town square of the fictional Hill Valley in “Back to the Future II,” this one can’t just float above any old solid surface.
The science at work here is actually pretty easy to explain. Know how magnets repel one another when their like poles are facing? And remember how rubbing a magnet on something, like a paperclip, briefly makes it magnetic too?
Well, there you go.
When the hovering object is powered up, it magnetizes the surface below it using induction and that creates a magnetic field that pushes the objects apart. But that also means by definition that the hoverboard only works above conductive surfaces like aluminum and — you guessed it — copper.
The novel work, for which they are seeking patents, is in the efficiency of the induction process and the ability to control the movements of the hovering objects.
But what’s the point if you can only float above surfaces that are almost nowhere to be found?
Wife-and-husband founders Jill Avery Henderon and Greg Henderson, who created the company in 2012, have some pretty ambitious long-term ideas, to put it mildly.
Greg Henderson is an architect, not a scientist, and found his way to the hovering concept as he explored novel ways of protecting buildings from earthquakes and sea-level rise. Eventually, they think they can use the technology to levitate entire structures, even retrofitting such a feature onto existing homes and offices.
But it’s fair to say that floating skyscrapers will take a while. In the more immediate future, they believe the technology can offer lower-energy alternatives for moving around people and materials, with applications in manufacturing, distribution, transit and more.
“It used to be a fictional device and now we have it,” Jill Avery Henderson said. “The applications are limitless when you start thinking of it as being as fundamental as the wheel.”
And yeah, obviously I nudged her into saying, “Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.”
It’s worth noting that this technology is already in use. Theirs is essentially a simplified — and far cheaper — version of the same basic concept used in the magnetic levitation trains under development in Japan. It also sounds like the rough approach that engineers at Google X briefly explored, according to an earlier article in Fast Company.
As a starting point — and this is probably what they wanted me to lead with — Arx Pax is launching a Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday, offering anyone the chance to preorder “HENDO Hover Engine” developer kits. The hope is that early buyers of what is essentially a small floating white box will dream up uses the company itself never would have imagined.
So far the couple has funded the now 19-person startup with their own savings, along with a friends-and-family round. They’re hoping to raise $250,000 through the campaign.
The basic box will cost $299, the Whitebox+ adds an “app for propulsion and control” for $499 and $10,000 gets you one of a limited number of actual hoverboards.
Which, finally, brings us to my experience last Wednesday.
Two Arx Pax engineers held the big, loud hoverboard in place as I gripped a handrail and stepped aboard. As they let go, I struggled to find my footing and balance, much like the first time someone steps onto a skateboard or snowboard.
It was awkward and, yet, kind of exhilarating — especially for someone who spent far more hours on skateboards than homework in high school. I felt like I was floating on air — because, of course, I was.
Before long, I realized I could kick along the ground to move forward and push down on my toes or heels to steer. None of which got me quite past the clumsy stage.
If I’d had just a few more minutes, I’m confident I could have pulled off a switchstance-900-varial-double-kickflip-nose-grind-to-fakie. But the test ride came to an end, so I guess we’ll never know.
By James Temple