In inventors’ circles, the newfangled skateboard Richard Myung will soon be marketing has created a bigger buzz than the vibrating condom.
Myung, a Silver Spring resident, is president of Datatron International, a full-service import firm with offices around the globe. One of his outposts is in his native Seoul, South Korea. Last year, an inventor there named Sin Ki Kang brought Myung a two-wheeled riding contraption he’d just devised, and ordered consumer-product safety tests from Datatron.
Myung was immediately taken by the gadget, dubbed the ESS Board by Kang as a play on “slalom board.”
“I thought right away, This board will dominate the skateboard industry,” says Myung, 40.
So Myung replaced his safety-testing hat with an entrepreneur’s lid. He decided he’d be the one to bring the ESS Board to the West. He bought the North American distribution rights for the 33-inch, 8-pound thingee.
Myung says his agreement with Kang gives him a lot of leeway in how the product will be marketed here. So even though Myung, who came to the United States in the mid-’80s to study at George Washington University, professes undying faith in the board, he’s not so sure its birth name will fly in these parts. Kang’s handle makes practical sense, because a primary attraction of the ESS Board is its ability to let riders use gravity and upper body manipulation to mimic S-shaped snowboarding movements on dry land. (Its two wheels, made of urethane and mounted on swivels, also allow riders to make much tighter 360-degree turns than they could ever make on conventional four-wheeled skateboards.)
But Myung, who has two preteen children who were raised in this country, thinks Kang’s name for the contraption could cause trouble on the American playground.
“With ‘ESS Board,’ you have to be very careful with pronunciation,” he says, in English inflected with a strong Korean accent. “That sounds like ‘Ass Board.’ And kids can be very rude, say, ‘Hey, ASS-Board! Hey, you’re on an ASS-Board! Hey, you’re an ASS-Boarder!’ I don’t want fights to start and [have] people sue us.”
While Myung hasn’t totally shut the door on using the name ESS Board in America, he’s also trademarked “X-Board,” to exploit the popularity that all things X seem to have with today’s youth. He used both names while entering the device in the Invention & New Product Exposition (INPEX), a yearly gathering where inventors show off their brainchildren. The 2004 event took place last week in Pittsburgh.
And, against a field that included such stiff competition as a beach towel with pockets and the aforementioned vibrating condom, the ESS Board/X-Board cleaned up. (For inquiring minds, here’s the description included in the INPEX program of the vibrating condom, called the Vicon, provided by its Taiwanese manufacturer in poor English: “To vibrate the outer air covering on the male phallus which will produce the vibration of female sensitive private part of vagina, so both of them attain erotism at the same time.”)
“The best words everybody used when they saw this was, “Wow!’” says Myung, recalling a typical INPEX-goer’s reaction to—no, not the condom—the board, as he rides one in his driveway.
An international panel of judges awarded Myung’s entry the gold medal in four categories: sports, recreation, toys, and games.
“That was everybody’s favorite invention,” says INPEX spokesperson Beth Reiners of the board.
INPEX, now in its 20th year, bills itself as the biggest annual inventor’s show in North America. But a big splash at the show in no way guarantees world-changing success. The 1999 winner of the Best Invention of the Americas, for example, was the Bungee Sexperience, a $300 swinging stirrup-and-straps contraption that can accommodate swingers weighing up to 250 pounds apiece. Despite its INPEX recognition, the typical American bedroom still isn’t equipped with a swinging sex toy.
What’s more, the skateboarding culture is, historically speaking, decidedly anti-innovation. The last landmark improvement in technology came in the early ’70s, when a former government contractor named Vernon Heitfield began experimenting in the basement of his Manassas home with materials he’d used while developing Cold War equipment for the Department of Defense. Heitfield invented urethane wheels to replace the clay-compound wheels that were on his son’s roller skates, and soon enough the “rubber” wheels manufactured by his company, Creative Urethanes, became the standard for skateboarders worldwide. All these years later, that type of wheel remains the state of the art.
“The popular thing for skateboarders to say is, ‘If it’s not just a plain old wood board and urethane wheels, it’s just garbage,’” says Steve Cave of Medford, Ore., a skateboard critic for about.com. “Change does come slowly here, if it comes at all.”
But Cave, one of the few North Americans to ride an ESS Board before INPEX 2004, sees all sorts of prosperity potential for the product, assuming the introductory list price of about $150—or $50 more than a good skateboard—comes down.
“The board felt very unnatural to me at first. I couldn’t get the hang right away, and the instructions were in Korean, which was useless,” says Cave. “So my first half-hour was very uncomfortable. But then I got it, and it started seeming incredibly natural. Hard to describe the sensation I felt, but it was less like snowboarding to me than—well, I’d call it ‘swimming on pavement.’ It’s a really fun toy, a really good ride. My impression is this will do very well in the states, if [Myung] can drop the price. [One hundred and fifty dollars] is a lot of money for anybody to spend on a toy before you know if you’ll like it.”
Myung promises the list-price reduction will come once the product takes off. So far, he’s been able to bring only a few boards to our shores from the Korean manufacturing plant. The first shipment of any size—300 pieces—is currently stuck in U.S. Customs at the port in Baltimore. He says he’s already received a request for 60,000 boards from a buyer he met in Pittsburgh. Even that’s small potatoes compared with the numbers he’s been crunching in his head since the convention. He’s been in touch with manufacturing plants in China and Central and South America to fill the Christmas orders he expects will come.
“Within a year from now, maybe 200,000 or 300,000 units can be sold stateside,” he says. “That’s a safe measure. And, after that, this is going to take kids away from computer games.”
Let’s hope the Vicon never makes that claim. —Dave McKenna