Why you should care

It might be the tech elite’s new bicycle.

Segways never really became mainstream, and hopes of a real-life hoverboard — for everyone — are still years away. But that doesn’t mean the bicycle has no competitors. Joining the movement of personal vehicles is the Ninebot One: a robotic one-wheeled personal transport system, which might soon be commonplace on the street.

It looks like a Segway, a roller skate and a unicycle mashed into one. To ride it, place your feet on the shelflike platform protruding from the main wheel. Then, when balanced, you adjust your body weight to move. Lean forward to speed up, move back to slow down. Powered by an internal battery that charges in two hours, it can achieve speeds of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) per hour and travels 10-30 kms (6-18 miles) per charge.

They wanted to create something that would give riders “butterflies” to use.

But how easy is it to master? The average learning cycle is about three days, but someone with strong coordination can “learn in 15 minutes,” according to the Ninebot Chinese office (answers translated by Marty Krycki, Ninebot Inc. U.S. marketing/distribution director). I spent around five minutes hands-on at Las Vegas’ Consumer Electronics Show 2015 and fell off three times, with maybe five seconds of actual balancing. For those not initially comfortable zipping around in circles, training wheels (blush) are also available. There’s also a two-wheeled Ninebot option for those with deeper pockets.

The Ninebot office says that they were inspired by sci-fi movies and wanted to create something that would give riders “butterflies” to use. They see their target user as aged 15-30 — people who appreciate their “futuristic look.” The Ninebot One has an ergonomic design, with a 16-inch pneumatic tire, padded leg rests and full waterproofing. A neat pull-out handle lets you tote it around like a heavy purse — it’s 12.8 kilograms (28 pounds). Other bells and whistles include a Bluetooth app that changes the colors of the LED lights in the wheel, making them blink, flash and glow at your whim. An alarm function makes the lights glow red and vibrate if someone attempts to steal the device. So, pretty and practical.

Robert Enderle, technology analyst from the Enderle group, isn’t sure if the Ninebot One — and other, similar electric unicycles — are really viable travel systems. And while he thinks they have potential, “right now they’re more toys than transportation.” He also expressed concerns about the safety of the device in a real-time traffic situation, since electric bikes and scooters often fall under the same safety rules of motor products. “The closer you get to toys, the more you worry about injuries,” he says.

At $830, buyers are unlikely to want a Ninebot One purely for recreation. As a commuting option, this might just be the tech elite’s new bicycle. However, best to avoid those highways.

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