What if you could ride a Segway, with its self-balancing electric motor? That’s possible today, yes. What if it was so portable that you could carry it with you into an office, a bus, a car, or on an airplane as a carry-on item?
With half the number of wheels and half the range, but only one-fifth the weight, the Solowheel could fit the bill.
(also available in black)
The test ride
New Year’s Eve – my wife was at work and I was taking the end of the year off. Chris took the Nissan LEAF in, and I had no reason to use gas, either, having the Current Motor Super Scooter.
So why did I visit her at work? Because she was planning to only spend a half-day at work and use the 2nd half to take an opportunity to indulge her latest curiosity: human-powered transportation gadgets. It just so happens that a local store carries the Solowheel, an electric self-balancing unicycle that Chris wanted to test ride.
The Solowheel, created by a local inventor, can be thought of like a one-wheeled Segway. Stand one foot on the horizontal platform on either side and then lean forward or back to go in that direction. Like the Segway, the Solowheel balances forward-back, using your center of gravity to control its speed. Unfortunately, what it lacks relative to the Segway, a second wheel, the Solowheel doesn’t make up for by balancing left-right. In other words, the Solowheel does not prevent you from tipping over sideways, which Chris and I did. A lot.
Chris and I practiced by standing on the Solowheel near the wall of the building, slowly making our way along the windows of the bicycle shop, getting off, turning around, and then repeating the process going the other way.
We were both having trouble getting very far without holding onto something. After maybe a half hour, I finally managed to go about 30-40 feet in a wobbly straight line away from the wall, but even after another half hour of trial and error, I couldn’t change direction except by accident.
Retailing for $1,999, the Solowheel seemed to be a difficult investment. Sure, we’d only spent an hour and a half or so trying to teach ourselves how to use it, but in that many minutes, we’d not only been able to learn how to ride a Segway, but follow a tour guide along a two-mile round-trip up to Mount Victoria Reserve and back from Devonport, in Auckland, New Zealand. The difficulty level is certainly much higher for the Solowheel than for the Segway.
That night, I discovered that I had bruises along my shins where the Solowheel is supposed to be held between the legs for balance. I must have slammed it against a leg each time I hastily jumped aboard or lost my footing. Three weeks later, a small part of the bruise remains near one ankle.
While there are plenty of videos of people who make riding the Solowheel look easy, what isn’t easy is learning how to ride it. Balance is important. The Solowheel requires the rider to perform the left-right balancing while it does the forward-back balancing. With instruction, the learning curve would probably have been easier. However, what I did learn was nothing I could explain to others. And unlike learning how to ride a Segway, or even a bicycle, there’s nothing that a teacher can hold onto to guide a student during instruction.
Initially, it was difficult to find the right way to think about the Solowheel. Price, convenience, and range were all considered, but that didn’t seem sufficient to base a purchase decision on. After the adrenalin of that afternoon wore off and the bruises appeared on my legs, I realized that, regardless of its merits, I could never evangelize the Solowheel. I could not make other people excited about something that I couldn’t learn to ride myself. Electric vehicles are already a hard sell, so why invest in one that leaves you with bruises?
So, I can’t recommend the Solowheel for myself. Even if I figured it out, the difficulty of teaching others how to ride would discourage them. Perhaps with more practice, or under the guidance of a skilled teacher, learning to ride a Solowheel could be fun, but for the effort (and the bruises), even $1,500 is too steep, and the reward is too little (difficult to teach others quickly, not practical as part of my commute).
While Chris’ interest in personal mobility devices is infectious, and while I like geeking out about electric vehicles, I can’t honestly say that I have a purpose in mind for the Solowheel. If I had one, the novelty value of riding it around my office would wane too quickly (never mind the bruising training regimen).
What one thing would make it a lot better?
Not to leave this on a negative note, the one thing that would’ve made a greater (non-bruising) impression on me would’ve been to make the Solowheel balance itself in all directions so that it is easier for beginners to ride. Examples of other one-wheel personal mobility inventions that already do this include: