Thursday, September 17, 2015

The War of the Hoverboards

The war of the hoverboards began in earnest in mid-February, in New York City, in the rainbow-colored halls of the 2015 Toy Fair. That much we know. Beyond that — where exactly in the Javits Center the first skirmish occurred, who the aggressor was, whether there were injured parties on the ground — that depends who you talk to.

Ask Shane Chen — holder of United States Patent No. 8,738,278B2, for “a two-wheel, self-balancing personal vehicle” — and he’ll tell you that things first heated up outside his booth. That’s where John Soibatian, the president of IO Hawk, the leading American distributor of the newly popular “personal mobility devices” (they’re all made in China) zoomed up to him aboard what Chen immediately recognized as a 2-foot-long knockoff. Chen’s lawyers had notified Soibatian at the Consumer Electronics Show the month prior that the IO Hawk violated Chen’s patent, and now Soibatian had come down to Chen’s booth — where he was showing off his device, the Hovertrax — to ask him to back off, to think about dropping it.

“I’ve had this idea since I was a kid,” Soibatian pleaded with Chen.

“Many people had this idea when they were a kid,” Chen responded firmly. “But they didn’t patent it.”

Ask Soibatian, who disputes most of Chen’s account, and you’ll get a different story. According to him, things got testy when Chen rolled over to the IO Hawk booth aboard a Solowheel, a kind of unicycle version of the hoverboard, which Chen has also patented. Chen informed Soibatian that he held the patent on devices of the type, and that this was how he made a living: by filing patents and waiting for other companies to violate them. Now that someone had built a salable version of his idea, he wanted to make a deal. Soibatian thought Chen sounded like a patent troll, like a scumbag. He told Chen he would have his lawyers look at the patent.

Later that day, after Chen wheeled away, one of the models Soibatian hired to scoot alluringly around trade shows reported that she had hovered by Chen’s booth and beheld a fiasco: people falling off the Hovertrax, lying on the floor. Soibatian mounted his IO Hawk and, model at his side, sped down to Chen’s booth, where he asked if he could give Hovertrax a try. Chen consented. Soibatian stepped aboard.

“I thought, Holy moly, what are you doing here, buddy?” Soibatian recalls. “It was garbage.” Why would he make a deal with the guy who built this piece of junk?

Chen, as you might expect, recalls the encounter differently. He stresses that Soibatian initially came to his booth, not the other way around. One person did fall down, but he was riding Orbit Wheels, another one of Chen’s inventions, one with a much steeper learning curve. And Chen says Soibatian never dismounted his IO Hawk. It was the model who tried Hovertrax, and she stayed upright the entire time. Chen agrees that he rode up to Soibatian’s booth, but not to make a deal; he went there to give the guy a break and offer him a few extra days to get patent-compliant.

Whatever the sequence of events, after the show, Soibatian says he showed Chen’s patent to his lawyers. “They told me I’d be crazy to pay him anything,” he says.

Four months later, Chen filed a lawsuit against Soibatian for patent infringement. The stakes of the war of the hoverboards had been set, and set high. Who had the right to profit off the future: the guy who patented the idea, or the guy who imported it in bulk from China?

And that was before Mark Cuban decided to get involved.

The 2-foot-long, two-wheeled, twin-motored plastic board that glided to the forefront of American popular culture this summer could be the skateboard of the young century. The similarities are there. It’s a zeitgeisty short-distance ride that has started to yield its own, self-sustaining viral culture. And you can definitely draw a line from the amateur videos that helped skate culture conquer America to the sudden tide of Vines and Instagram videos that have made the boards a phenomenon. Then again, the so-called hoverboards could simply be the Tickle Me Elmos of 2015 — ubiquitous, overpriced trinkets with a single holiday-season half-life. Time and the collective attention span of America’s teenagers will tell.

This much is certain: For some weeks or years to come, these devices will be part of the future. Celebrity endorsements on television and social media, enthusiastic word of mouth, and a sudden crop of internet distributors that can barely import the things fast enough to mark them up and meet demand have seen to that.

Unlike most of the toy crazes of the past 20 years, however, hoverboards aren’t simply a case of a major brand developing a product followed by a rash of cheap imitators. Their popularity is weirder and harder to trace. Hoverboards have been part of the American popular imagination since at least 1989, when Michael J. Fox snapped the handle off of a little girl’s levitating scooter to escape from a gang of future toughs in Back to the Future Part II. Since then, like jetpacks and flying cars, levitating skateboards have been something between an expectation and a punchline, a time-capsule agreement that the future has arrived. The past 25 years have seen an intermittent series of viral pranks, garage-bound failures, and science projects that have made good headline fodder, but done little to bring Robert Zemeckis’s dream to the consumer masses.

This year, that changed. An army of stodgy literalists is quick to point out that today’s hoverboards don’t hover. But they do glide satisfyingly, and they’re easy to use, and most important, they’re mass-produced. As Wired reported earlier this summer, all of the dozen or so tiny American companies that sell the devices, including IO Hawk, buy from Chinese manufacturers like Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology (Chic) and make changes to the boards, typically cosmetic, before selling them in the States. Chic likely sold the first scooters directly, last summer, in Asia. But that doesn’t mean Chic invented them.

And it certainly doesn’t mean Chic, or any of the companies that sell Chic-manufactured boards, have anything like brand recognition in America. Confusion over the name of the product class — are they hoverboards? are they scooters? — bespeaks the fact that none of the brands is strong enough to become a household catchall for the boards, like, say, Jet Ski for personal watercraft. Commercial frenzies around toys patented by individual creators aren’t unique; both Furby and Super Soaker were patented by entrepreneurs who sold exclusive licenses to large companies that marketed them skillfully. But the difference here is the frenzy and the patent fight are happening at the same time. Money is flying thanks to the unparalleled marketing power of social media, but without a giant corporation to pull it all down.

by Joseph Bernstein, BuzzFeed | Read more:
Image: Alex Eben Meyer