Half Segway, half unicycle, the AirWheel Q3 arrived in the TechRadar office at the beginning of August promising a "revolution" in personal mobility.
I was intrigued. After all, why walk to work when you can just... stand to work?
The AirWheel is a personal transport vehicle that uses a gyroscope and attitude control stabilisation to stay upright on its wheel without any other supports.
With one foot either side of the wheel, you simply stand up straight and lean forward to move forward, lean back to slow down or go backwards and lean sideways to steer. Easy, right? Well not exactly - but we'll come back to that.
It's certainly not cheap. The AirWheel Q3 we tested is the most expensive in the range and costs all of £799 in the UK and $1333 in the US.
Even the cheapest model, the AirWheel X3 costs £510/$849 - hardly an impulse purchase.
You can see the full range on the AirWheel website but the top-end Q3 model I tested has dual 14-inch wheels because it's so damn big, an 800W motor and a 340W battery that's good for 24 miles of about-town scooting at a maximum speed of 12kph. That range is impressive.
All models will actually go as fast as 16kph if you're moving down hill, but at that point it'll use its motor to start slowing you down.
How the AirWheel works
Concept-wise, the AirWheel is very similar to the Segway, but with a crucial difference. Instead of having a platform to stand on in between two gyro-controlled wheels and a handle to hold on to, the AirWheel has you standing on two pedals either side of a single wheel (two adjacent wheels in the case of the Q3).
It's far less stable - there are no handlebars, and you can't just stand still on it - you have to keep moving to stay balanced like a bike.
You have to find this all out for yourself because the 'user manual' you get in the box doesn't even begin to explain how to ride the thing. It tells you how to charge it, store it and maintain it in badly-translated English, but not to actually use it. The most you get is along the lines of "press the on button and the unit is ready to be used". Right. Thanks for that.
Learning to ride
It's no exaggeration to say that when you first begin, the AirWheel appears all but impossible to ride. The videos online make it look easy, but I promise you - it isn't. Just getting on the thing is hard enough at the start, let alone making some distance.
You really have to stick with it, put up with the frustration and sink a good few hours of practise into it before you're anywhere near ready to go out and about.
Most models of the AirWheel ship with a pair of auxiliary stabilisers to help you get to grips with the unit's function. Sounds like a good way of learning to ride, but for some reason, with the Q3 you're thrown in at the deep end from the off - no stabilisers included.
Because of this, you'll have to be prepared to take some pain.
Leg bruises come as standard with the Q3. At one point, our test unit was all of a sudden covered in blood - I looked down at my hand, also covered in blood. Still no idea how I slashed my thumb but the pain was nothing compared to the bruises I've got on my shins and the scrapes on my ankles. That's the main complaint I had from everyone who tried it - shin pain. Ouch.
The key to riding the AirWheel Q3 is choosing the right terrain. Anything uneven and bumpy instantly makes the task of riding about ten times harder.
I've had the unit for a couple of weeks now and feel quite comfortable riding on flat, smooth ground. The smoothness is the key - slopes are no problem as long as they're smooth. Taking it over really uneven ground will be a big no-no for all but really experienced AirWheelers.
Turning is also fairly straight forward on nice smooth ground, though still takes quite a while to get the hang of. Go down a curb and onto a road though and it's another matter.
The City of Bath where I live is thousands of years old, and while (most of) the roads are a little bit newer than that, they're not generally in the best nick. We're not talking pot holes, just rough, uneven tarmac. Standard, neglected British roads.
When riding on a surface like that it's so easy for a bump or an uneven/rougher bit of the surface to send you into a wobble, and because there's no handle, when you're about to crash you have two options:
1. Either jump off and save your shins, ankles and feet from being attacked by the AirWheel as it flails around on the ground like a wild animal, or 2. attempt to grab hold of it and risk a pummelling, broken fingers or worse.
Because if there's one thing the AirWheel was designed for, it's self-harm.
When you come off it, or even if you just pick it up while it's switched on, the gyro spins the wheels up to top speed for three or four seconds before deactivating them. If at any point during this period the wheels come into contact with anything at all, ground, walls, feet, it'll give an almighty kick and violence will ensue.
One time, I fell off near a curb, the wheels span and made contact with the curb and the unit did a double somersault before crashing back down into the road.
Now, the body of the unit may be plastic, but the pedals are solid metal. And my ankles were tired of being assaulted by them after about 2 minutes of day 1. So my crash strategy was always to jump well clear. And when that happens, you effectively leave the unit to come to a stop on its own.
Unfortunately this often involves the AirWheel cart wheeling down the road, grazing and scratching itself horribly. Better it take the pain than my shins, but it still hurt to see the unit take such a beating, poor thing.
There is an orange safety strap in the box which is supposed to help with this during the learning phase. But you wouldn't know it because it's hidden so far inside the box I didn't see it at first, and of course there's no mention of it in the user manual. This could effectively help you during the learning process, but I found that even when I was confident, the odd crash was inevitable and with it, damage.
I think it's important to point out at this point that this is, I think, probably much more of a problem with this Q3 unit than any other. My feeling is that this tech was designed for the smaller, slicker X3 and that the Q3 is a compromise to squeeze in better range.
With it's bigger motor, extra wheel and larger battery, it's really quite big and heavy - it weighs 13kg. The X3 is much smaller and sleeker, it's far less bulky and cumbersome, and weighs under 10Kg.
The added weight and bulk give the Q3 far more potential to do you harm, and that is I think its biggest problem. I'd glady sacrifice some range to feel safer in its company. I wish they'd sent us the X3 instead.
What I do know is that, having encouraged plenty of other people to have a go with the Q3 - colleagues, housemates, girlfriend - they all had exactly the same issues. So it's not just me being a fool, at least no more than usual.
Possibly the most annoying thing about the AirWheel, though, is the godforsaken beeping noise it insists on making.
When you come off it, it deactivates the gyro to stop the wheels spinning (after the ludicrous aforementioned spinning-up). And to let you know it's done that, instead of a quick, civilised boop, you get an incessant, high-pitched squealing sound that'll startle any dog within a mile and it won't stop until you pick the unit up again and turn it off and on again. It's so, so annoying.
The good bits
OK so that's the complaining out of the way, and now we can talk about the good stuff. When you've learned to use the AirWheel it really is a lot of fun to use if you can find some space.
It feels great to glide across a wide open space, turn around, zoom about, stop, go and so forth. Racing them I imagine being a lot fun too.
In theory, you could absolutely ride one to the shops. Riding over grass is possible but requires far more concentration. And if you're the kind of person who craves the attention of others, just wait until you ride one of these things in public. You will be the centre of attention.
But you really need to think about where and when you'll use it. If you can't think where you would go to learn to ride this thing, you probably shouldn't be buying it. If you can, I can imagine you having plenty of fun with it. But I'd strongly recommend going for one of the smaller models.
Is it possible to ride one of these to work? If that's what you're imagining doing with it, yes it's possible. But you need to think about your route. Will you encounter pedestrians? How many road crossings are there? Is there enough space? Is the route smooth? And will you be able to lift the 13kg unit up to your desk when you get there?
So what is the AirWheel for?
If you go to the AirWheel website, the videos they've posted on YouTube will have you believing you can do almost anything on an AirWheel (most of the videos use the smaller X3). Drive around in office buildings, in and out of lifts, into Costa and out again with a coffee without even hopping off.
But these things really aren't that straight forward on the Q3.
The website says the AirWheel is water proof and so can be ridden in the rain. The Q3 user manual tells you not to do that.
All of the company's videos have carefree riders cruising along without any safety gear at all. The user manual demands you don helmets, gloves, elbow/knee pads and "other necessary protection gears".
The AirWheel website shows a video of a ten year old flying around on an X3. The user manual forbids anyone under 15 to ride one.
More promotional videos show the AirWheel being ridden through fields and forests. The user manual insists you don't do that, and also recommends not riding on "packed roads or crowded streets". It doesn't tell you where you should ride it though. The moon, perhaps.