Pre-mutated products: where did all those "hoverboards" come from?

Those bowtie-shaped "motorized self-balancing two-wheeled scooters" you see in the windows of strip-mall cellphone repair shops and in mall-kiosks roared out of nowhere and are now everywhere, despite being so new that we don't even know what they're called.

This week's Planet Money (MP3) travels to Shenzhen, China, "the world's factory," and tries to figure out where this all started. As near as they can tell, a Chinese engineer in the USA successfully kickstarted a self-balancing board, the videos were seen by engineers in China, who figured out a much cheaper way to make a similar board (they use a clever system of linkages between motors instead of accelerometers and gyroscopes) using commodity parts, and factories started to tool up to make the boards, selling them through Alibaba and importer/exporters.

Buzzfeed's Joseph Bernstein also travelled to Shenzhen and spoke with many of the people in the hoverboard supply-chain: small factory owners, sales reps, workers, and exporter/distributors from around the world who're trying to figure out which of the identical-seeming gizmos to send abroad.

Bernstein is interested in this phenomenon as "memeufacturing" -- a couple of social-media stars (or garden-variety celebs) post viral videos of themselves using an obscure gadget, and halfway around the world, factories shut down their e-cig lines and convert them, almost overnight, to hoverboard manufacturing lines. Bernstein cites a source who says that there are 1,000 hoverboard factories in South China -- and another one, Chic Smart, outside of Shanghai, that's threatening to sue all the rest for patent infringement (good luck with that).

The speed at which the retooling took place is baffling. South China's factories have the nimbleness born of precarity (retool or die!) but even by those standards, 1,000 factories is an incredible number: two factories a day since the first (?) hoverboard shipped.

As amazing as that manufacturing story is, I think the weirdness of the product itself is even more amazing. I remember visiting China in 2007 and seeing a million bizarre variants on Ipods, which were the hot category at the time. That story was easy to understand: Apple spent a fortune opening a market for music players of a certain size and shape. China's entrepreneurs, living in a bubble where Apple's patents and trademarks were largely unenforceable, set to copying that design, and (this is the important part) varying it. Trying out combinations that were weird and unlikely (and almost entirely doomed). In the absence of a control-freak company with the power of the state behind it, variation flourished, a mini-Galapagos of Ipod-ish gadgets in every color and shape.

But hoverboards are different: they are knockoffs without an original. The copies of the "original" hoverboard (if anyone can ever agree on what that was) created the market, and they were already varied and mutated. There was never a moment at which all the bus-shelters and billboards touted an ideal, original hoverboard that the bottom-feeders started to nibble away at. The pre-mutated hoverboards arrived without a name (they still don't have a name -- I'm calling them hoverboards, but there are lots of other things that their riders call them). They arrived without an original shape, aspect ratio, size, charge-time, or color scheme.

They're part of a new category of hyperspeed gadgets -- like ecigs and LED lightbulbs -- that have no authoritative version. Products that start life as commodities.

A fun science fiction exercise is to imagine things that are hard and formalized and regulated being replaced with things that are fluid and bottom up. Imagine what a car would look like if it were made this way. Imagine prefab buildings.

Cranes.

Airplanes.

It's a funny old, new, world.

In October, nearly 4,000 exhibitors gathered at a 1 million-square-foot convention center jutting into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor. They were here to meet some of the people looking to buy and resell fung fo leon, hoverboards, self-balancing two-wheel scooters, power balance boards, whatever you wanted to call them. As long as you were interested in buying them, it didn’t matter. As long as you were interested in buying something.

On the ground floor of the convention center, a 22-year-old named Natalie Cheung stood handing out fliers, a hoverboard idling next to her feet; she told me she was getting paid 45 Hong Kong dollars (about $5.80 USD) per day to point people in the direction of “featured products,” which included heart-rate-sensing earbuds, a drone the size of a small flapjack, and a “2-wheel Electric Scooter” with “ultra endurance” and “refined aesthetic.” On floor after floor, cavernous halls housed thousands of identical metal and plastic booths, each one representing a factory, most of them on the Chinese mainland. Together, they offered everything imaginable that can be plugged in, from televisions and tablets to alarm systems and electronic toothbrushes; hair dryers and flashlights to megaphones and industrial relays; UV disinfectors and toasters to underwater cameras and digital Bible readers.

Though the fair was a huge production, it is probably more useful to think of it not as one discrete event, but as a single destination in a rolling regional spectacular. A week after the Hong Kong show, many of the exhibitors would pack up and head to Canton Fair in Guanzhou, an extravaganza so intense the powers that be divided it into six separate “phases.” After that, they’d move on again: Chinaexhibition.com lists 25 electronics fairs in China and Hong Kong between now and September 2016.

Inside China's Memefacturing Factories, Where The Hottest New Gadgets Are Made [Joseph Bernstein/Buzzfeed]

Episode 666: The Hoverboard Life [Planet Money/NPR]

(Image: Joseph Bernstein/Buzzfeed; Kristen Clark/NPR)