Some words just make other words seem cooler. Add "rocket" to just about anything—car, backpack, toast—and suddenly you've made those words way more interesting. Rocket car! Rocket backpack! Rocket toast!
That was my thinking when I decided to try out RocketSkates, an upcoming product from Acton that cleared $550,000 in Kickstarter funding over the summer. While they aren't actually propelled by rockets, the motorized and battery-powered skates will scoot you along at speeds of about 12 miles per hour, and creator Peter Treadway has high hopes that they'll compete with skateboards, bikes, regular skates, and plain old feet as a form of urban transit. We met with Treadway earlier this week to talk about the skates and to take them for a test run.
RocketSkates began as a school project that Treadway began working on while he was getting his master's degree in industrial design. For him, "wearable transportation" was a natural way to combine his "love of cars and love of fashion." During the prototyping phase, he even delayed his own graduation so he could retain his access to the school's facilities.
"The idea was that you'd be able to take your transport with you wherever you go, and you wouldn't have to worry about parking it or locking it up or anything," he told Ars. "And it would just become an accessory, something you have with you at all times."
The skates are targeted primarily at city-dwellers "and people who would rather spend less time in their cars, or if they don't have a car," Treadway said. "Something to enjoy oneself with, and get around."
This city-centric pitch is reflected strongly in the skates' design. The three separate models offer six, eight, or ten miles of travel—not much for rural areas, but enough to get you through a pretty full day of walking in the city. The toes of your shoes hang over the skates so that you can stop them and walk, useful for navigating stairs or curbs.
The skates don't require any kind of handheld controls, though as with most smart devices they come with a companion phone app that is used to configure them. Once the skates have been paired with your phone over Bluetooth, the app provides stat-tracking and battery life information as well as a few games you can play (if your battery runs out, you're better off walking—these aren't really built to work in non-rocket mode). Most importantly, the app lets you designate a "master" and a "follower" skate, based on which foot you put in front of the other. The master skate is the one that revs up and winds down the skates' motors, and the other skate simply follows its lead. Finally, the app lets you set your skates to one of three different "difficulty" levels—Treadway told us that this doesn't affect the top speed of the skates, but the rate at which they accelerate.
Taking a ride
Once you've configured the skates you only need to dive into that app occasionally—actually controlling the skates is done with the rest of your body. You strap them on over your shoes, turn the skates on, and press down on the "master" skate with your heel to calibrate them. Then you put the master skate foot in front of the follower skate foot, and kick off. Once the front wheel is moving, the motor will kick in and the skate will start propelling itself. From here, you tilt your body forward slightly to accelerate, tilt your body backward slightly to decelerate, and just put your foot down to the ground to stop. Once you're not moving anymore, the motor will turn off.
Treadway hopped aboard the RocketSkates, kicked off, and sped off for a quick and graceful circuit of the PR office we were meeting in, which you can see in the video above. This is how you look when you're using the skates properly, and there's no denying that it looks cool.
Through some combination of ignorance and hubris, I thought (hoped?) that I would be able to strap on the skates myself and zip around with similar grace. In retrospect, this was absurd—I've never skated regularly, and every time I've tried has resulted in bruises on my body and ego. My first attempts to RocketSkate were no different, which you can also see in the video above, preserved on the Internet where everything lasts forever.
Much like the rollerblades, skateboards, and bikes that they hope to replace, RocketSkates have a learning curve. It looks easy when an experience rider does it, but newbies will need to get the hang of pointing the wheels in the same direction, leaning without falling forward or backward. The urge to move your legs is strong, as is the desire to have your feet evenly placed rather than riding with one in front of the other. Ignore these impulses! For they lead only to slipping and sliding and (once, but only once!) actually falling down.
But even by the end of my 20-minute session my shaky baby deer steps had become more confident, and with a couple more practice sessions I'm pretty sure I could become a barely proficient RocketSkater. Perhaps in time, I could even have become decent at it. Either way, you'll need some skill with regular skates before you can use RocketSkates.
Really, RocketSkates are just another avenue through which wearable tech and the (ugh) "Internet of Things" can worm their way into your life. RocketSkates are on the more practical end of the spectrum (easy transportation beats notifications on your wrist beats sentient refrigerators), but they have some of the same conceptual problems as other wearables.
For one, their cost-to-utility ratio isn't as good as other, non-smart gadgets just yet. The six-mile R6 model starts at around $459, and you'll pay $100 more to upgrade to the eight-mile R8 model or $200 more to get the ten-mile R10. This isn't outrageously high in the land of gadgets but is definitely expensive when compared against un-rocketed skates or a basic bike.
There are other concerns that are more difficult to quantify. Think of it as the "Segway Factor" or the "Google Glass Effect," a phenomenon in which a particularly conspicuous piece of technology becomes stigmatized for one reason or another. That stigma then becomes an additional obstacle barring the way to mass-market success.
"There's sort of a geek-chic thing going on right now. I don't think that's something that we worry about so much," Treadway told Ars. "We try to make them look as cool as we can… Times are changing. Even Segways are becoming more accepted these days. I think we're riding a good tide with that."
Subjective things aside, our biggest practical concern with using the Rocket Skates for actual transportation is that they're fairly large. The place you're skating to will need to have a place to put them if you want to take them off, or you'll need to stick them in a backpack or bag and carry them around that way (Acton offers one for $99). It's possible to manage curbs and stairs in the skates but you wouldn't want to walk around in them for extended periods of time. In some cases, it might be preferable to leaving a bike chained out on the street, but in other cases the skates may prove cumbersome. As with anything, it depends on what you do and how you like to do it—if you already skateboard everywhere, then you'll be used to carrying your transit method around with you.
RocketSkates can be pre-ordered now, and the first units should begin shipping in November and December. Acton will knock $20 off the price for you if you choose to get them in December. The company promises delivery by Christmas.