I’ve been riding around on a Future Wheels Smart Glider, one of the many brands of balance board, for a couple of weeks now. One of the joys of my sideline on radio and with The Loadout is that I get to test gadgets like this. And with the Smart Glider it’s fair to say that my colleague Mason and I have put the effort in. It shows.
The Smart Glider is one of the higher-quality balance boards out there. It is equipped with a pair of strong motors and good quality batteries. If things go wrong you have a UK importer or retailer to turn to for support. But because it is encased in the same plastic case as cheaper models, it suffers some of the same design and cosmetic problems: a tumble here and a tumble there (and you will tumble — especially if you experiment with its top speed as I did) and it soon looks pretty scratched.
This doesn’t affect its function: apart from an occasionally over-sensitive safety cut-off throwing me off, it has been very reliable and good fun. And I believe the manufacturers when they say its batteries will be good for a few thousand cycles.
But this isn’t true of all of these boards. Many are made to a price more than a standard. Cheaper internal components means less-powerful motors, lower quality, and lower capacity batteries, and weaker structure. Some of them have their internals held together with masking tape. Search the forums and you’ll find all sorts of horror stories.
If the swegway/balance board/hoverboard/whatever you want to call it is the success I’m expecting this Christmas, there will be an awful lot of them junked by the end of January.
This will disappoint a lot of parents and children, but more importantly it suggests the extension of a depressing trend in consumer technology: design for rapid obsolescence.
This is not new of course: we have been designing goods to need replacing for a very long time, in order to maintain the consumer cycle. But there was some evidence that simple economics was driving a slight slowdown in the replacement cycle for many categories.
Laptops lasting longer because web-based applications simply didn’t need more grunt from old devices (and because in a downturn companies are glad to slow the churn of hardware). Phones lasting two years rather than 18 months because operators didn’t want to keep subsidising new devices at short intervals. Tablet and eReader sales falling because like the laptops, once bought they remained capable for a few years.
Now that the mass manufacturing capabilities of China can turn out mechatronic goods like the Smart Glider at a consumer-friendly price point we might see a new wave of carbon-intensive, short-lived kit bound for land-fill.
Or perhaps we might see something else.
Because the design of these devices is largely universal, all drawn from the same source, it’s possible that many of their parts will be interchangeable. They’re not designed to be easily maintained, but like a bike or a skateboard, perhaps the keen will find a way.
If the appeal of these devices sustains, maybe we’ll see skate shops or bike shops start to offer to service and upgrade them? Maybe there will be a market for customisation and performance components? Their lives might be extended in a way that isn’t possible for more tightly integrated consumer electronics.
This may well be a vain hope. Some of my initial optimism that these devices will go beyond a sci-fi novelty has worn off.
But you never know. Riding around the reaction I have had has been a mixture of wild excitement (usually from the under 12s), amused interest (most adults) and abuse (my friends). Will that translate into a more sustained user base?