Gizmos

A Hovering Backpack Doesn’t Have to Be Useful to Be Awesome

Not every tech development needs a purpose. Let’s just marvel at this fantastic, useless invention.

Lunavity backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Lunavity.com

While CES is regarded as the biggest event of the year for launching crazy gadgets, SXSW sees its fair share of new products, too. Ahead of the numerous thought-leader panels and brand activations, companies use media spectacle to debut their futuristic contraptions. This year, for example, Bose debuted a new pair of augmented reality glasses: Bose AR. While other AR glasses focus on relaying additional information in your field of vision, Bose’s glasses instead use audio to deliver stats and information about the world around you.

Bose AR falls in line with the types of products you’d expect to see at a tech-focused trade show: cutting-edge technologies that build on existing trends. Other products are developed to address specific pain points in life—eye-tracking technology for those with limited mobility, for example, or laundry-folding robots to handle the world’s most loathsome chore. This isn’t always true. We can look to a peculiar device on display at SXSW in Austin, Texas, this week for the perfect example: Lunavity, a backpack-worn system that augments the wearer’s jumping abilities by helping him float through the air longer and farther than is humanly possible.

Attached to the backpack and positioned above the wearer’s head is a multirotor system—not unlike those you’d find on a drone. This engages to give the wearer extra lift so he can jump two to three times as high as he normally would before eventually floating back to the ground. The overall effect is to make it look as if the person is walking on the moon.

“Our goal is to augment humans’ physical capabilities,” Lunavity project manager Takumi Takahashi says in the product’s launch video. There are other devices and suits that also accomplish this broad goal: In 2016, a designer and a South Korean robotics company teamed up to develop a 13-foot-tall mech suit used to help with Fukushima cleanup; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded exoskeletons for turning military personnel into supersoldiers; there are even mind-controlled prosthetic limbs for amputees.
All of these have clear use cases and benefits for the wearer.

Let’s be honest: Lunavity, by comparison, is virtually useless unless we decide regular basketball has grown too boring. Indeed, Takahashi says the device would merely make the world “a more interesting place,” and in its video, the example use cases for the backpack include leaping over a crosswalk, watering fruit in a tall tree, and—of course—throwing down a dunk. Lunavity doesn’t deserve only plaudits. With a debut at SXSW, the Lunavity team was surely hoping for some love from media and investors—for a product with no real purpose. And if every hardware startup was working on “interesting,” purely attention-grabbing products like this, we’d see even fewer “boring” real-world problems getting addressed. Still, that doesn’t make it any less awesome.

And while there’s really no foreseeable application in the near term, Lunavity, which was developed by a team of University of Tokyo students, is still an idea that could spark the imaginations of other inventors and entrepreneurs. It could prove to be a stepping stone to legitimately “useful” technologies in the future. While Lunavity is only designed for augmented jumping, perhaps a more robust version could act as a short-distance personal transport system. Rather than persons with disabilities requiring a wheelchair, perhaps another iteration could give an individual enough lift to be able to stand and move amongst crowds, regardless of the mobility of their legs.

Lunavity itself is amazing and entirely silly. It has no business existing, but it’s delightful that it does. While we could wax on about the hopes, possibilities, and maybes that its technology holds for the future, instead let’s take a moment and revel in its wonder and whimsy. I kind of wish I had one of my own.