In Focus

The Joys of the Personal Mobility Device

IO Hawk
IO Hawk photo by James Glader

Sometimes walking can be sooo, like, tedious. Good thing there’s a new way to move.

When people first encounter these odd-looking, two-wheeled robot scooter thingies, they’re mystified, then intrigued, then adamant that they can’t live without one, even though they didn’t know it existed until 10 seconds ago.

But what exactly is it? Good question. There’s really no generic name yet, possibly because it’s so new. Electric unicycle, self-balancing mini-smart scooter and drifting board are just a few of the SEO-driven descriptors that pop up at online retailers. It’s sort of unclear who invented it, too.

What’s eminently clear is that the first company to make a significant splash with it was IO Hawk at January’s annual Consumer Electronics Show. It calls it an “Intelligent Personal Mobility Device,” which is accurate, but also kind of awful. It would prefer that everyone call it, eponymously enough, an “IO Hawk.” (Of course, it would.)

What this plastic-plank-on-two-wheels does, however, is arguably much more interesting than what it’s called. Performing much like a Segway sans handlebars, the device can propel a 280-pound person along roadways and parking lots and other relatively smooth, dry surfaces for about 10 to 12 miles at speeds up to 6 mph. Doesn’t sound terribly fast, but when you’re just an inch off the ground and not propelling yourself with what the good Lord gave you, it’s a lot.

Like a Segway, the device is crammed with digital gyroscopes and stabilizers, as well as myriad sensors that calculate a rider’s center of gravity and then adjust accordingly. Beginner mode cranks down the speed to 3.7 mph, or the equivalent of a nice stroll. This is a good thing, since a user’s initial tendency is to hop on and flail around. As the manual notes helpfully, this “will cause you to lose control and increase your probability of injury.”

To be fair, the manual also recommends that the user “stay relaxed and step on quickly, confidently and evenly,” as if “climbing a stair,” and then, “if your weight is distributed correctly and your center of balance is level, you should be able to stand...just as if you were standing on the ground.” Having a spotter within easy reach, another recommendation, sounds reasonable.

Getting the initial hang of the IO Hawk is supposed to take about 5 minutes and requires little more than thinking about, and slightly tilting your center of gravity toward your desired direction. Off you go! Hopefully not into your spotter. Or a wall. Or off a curb. Full proficiency takes about a half-hour.

The IO Hawk sells online for about $1,800, but thanks to cutthroat competition among Chinese manufacturers, similar products are hitting the market with astonishing rapidity. A company called PhunkeeDuck makes and sells what appears to be the exact same thing as the IO Hawk for about $1,500. In fact, dozens of no-name, online companies have begun selling identical devices for much, much cheaper than that — a few are even in the $300 range.

But, caveat emptor. These lower-priced, motorized toys may vary wildly in terms of reliability, durability and quality. When you buy a cheap can opener, manufacturing shortcuts aren’t an issue. But a sideways motorized skateboard upon which you and your precious noggin defy gravity? Hmm, let’s think about that.

There’s also no place to try before you buy, since all sales happen online.

But even more than price or quality, rabid social media is feeding the gotta-have-whatever-this-thing-is frenzy. Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Kendall Jenner and others of their ilk are all over the Instagooglenet with this thing. Consider yourself warned.

Hey, maybe the next step in “personal mobility device” innovation will be the addition of a selfie stick. Don’t forget, you saw it here first.

Want one?

Customers who like to try before they buy are out of luck because there aren’t any IO Hawk retailers in our area. You can buy directly from the website, http://iohawk.com, or you could go to Vegas and give it a spin. It’s worth a trip, right? If so, email IO Hawk through the website to arrange a test drive, er, scoot.

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