High-tech sports, anyone?

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Every few years, a new piece of sports equipment captures the world’s attention. Low-tech innovations of the past, such as the hula hoop and Frisbee, have given way to today’s high-end, high-tech inventions that put a new twist on a familiar piece of equipment.

Over the past few years, engineers have come up with smaller and more powerful electric motors with longer-lasting batteries. This means that all types of sports equipment have the potential to become motorized. Performance tracking devices such as the Fitbit may come to mind when you think of tech and sports, but technology is also being used to create new sports challenges by transforming familiar pieces of equipment with motorized power.

Take, for example, the Onewheel®, a popular demo item at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Onewheel consists of a skateboard platform that has been split in the middle, where a single motorized tire has been inserted. It looks like a balance board, but standing on it is a lot easier than a balance board, thanks to gyroscopic stabilization. You control movement with your feet; shifting your weight to your front foot propels it forward, while shifting to your back foot reverses or brakes.

Skateboarders who try the Onewheel are surprised by the difference the inflated wheel makes, allowing them to go off road and ride over any reasonably solid surface. Unlike a traditional skateboard, Onewheel comes with a smartphone app that allows you to customize your ride by adjusting how the device’s sensors and gyros interact. Of course, all these high-tech features add up to a higher price tag than your average skateboard. The Onewheel sells for about $1,600 at a few retailers and online.

Another piece of low-tech sports equipment with a high-tech makeover is the surfboard. In the past, the only way to surf in flat water was with a boat and tow rope. Now, a Spanish company named Onean wants to change flat-water surfing with its electric surfboard. According to Onean, an electric surfboard provides a new sense of freedom since you are no longer dependent on tides and weather conditions. The board is powered by a built-in motor that you control with a handheld remote. Like a traditional surfboard, the direction the board travels is controlled with your feet.

Onean is taking preorders for two models of electric surfboards. The Carver, which is shaped like a traditional surfboard, can reach speeds up to 25 mph, allowing serious surfers to make cuts and turns. The Manta has a more rectangular shape and is designed for relaxed cruising at speeds up to 5 mph. The Carver runs for 20 minutes on a single charge, while the Manta goes for 2 hours. Both models have a preorder price of about $4,000.

Riding a unicycle looks like fun, but learning how to balance on one wheel keeps most people from trying. That problem has been solved in part by the self-balancing unicycle, or SBU, an electric unicycle that you steer by leaning your body in the direction you want to go. SBUs are equipped with internal accelerometers and gyros that help with balance, although according to reviews on CNET.com and The Telegraph, these new unicycles still require several hours of training.
SBUs are available in two main flavors: with or without a seat. They are currently marketing by several companies, including AirWheel, Ninebot and Focus Designs, which was featured on a 2012 episode of Shark Tank. SBU prices range from about $400 for the seatless AirWheel Q3 to $1,800 for the Focus Design SBU.

The growing interest among consumers in high-tech sports equipment was recently seen with the hoverboard, a self-balancing electric skateboard named for a levitating skateboard depicted in the Back to the Future film franchise. In the fall of 2015, the market was flooded with unknown hoverboard brands imported from China and the media was soon reporting on safety concerns related to exploding motors and batteries. Investigations by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission followed and some retailers, including Amazon.com and Target, were forced to temporarily halt sales of the devices. The positive outcome for the hoverboard situation could be tighter safety regulations for devices that are manufactured overseas.

If you’re thinking about investing in any type of high-tech equipment, it pays to shop from official dealers and other reputable retailers that you know and trust. Stick with products that you can learn about online and avoid great-sounding deals at mall kiosks or on random websites. You want to be able to find the retailer in case problems arise. More importantly, you’re putting your safety in the hands of the manufacturer of an electric skateboard, surfboard or unicycle, so it pays to learn as much as possible before you buy. And remember–these devices can move fast and deliver some power, so practice safely! HLM

Sources: CNET.com, DigitalTrends.com, wsj.com, Onean.com, FocusDesign.com, telegraph.co.uk and OneWheel.com.