What's better at being a wheel than ... a wheel?
That is not a rhetorical question or a Zen kōan or the start to an awesome joke (sorry). Inventor David Patrick, an avid skateboarder, stumbled (or, you know, skated) onto a way to reinvent the wheel as something that he claims is better than the tradition cylindrical model -- something faster, more stable, and more ground-gripping. Its inspiration, Patrick says, "came from a cube." He calls his creation the "SharkWheel," and he has patented the invention -- and is now raising money for its production on Kickstarter. (A week into the campaign, the modified wheel has taken in almost double the amount of its original $10,000 funding goal.)
So what is the SharkWheel, exactly? And how is it possible that a cube -- an object defined, after all, by its 90-degree angles -- would inspire an object whose whole point is its lack of points?
It comes down to the materials used to modify the wheel. Patrick took six modular tubes, connected into a circle, and then bent them in such a way that, in their contours, "they formed a perfect cube." (The bending, thus mitigating the sharp angles while maintaining fidelity to the cube-like shape, would be key here.) And then he dropped that object on the ground -- and discovered that it rolled. And: it kept rolling.
"The helix shape was balanced," Patrick explains, meaning that, whatever terrain the helix traversed, it kept traveling.
Patrick turned that insight into a series of skateboard wheels designed for different types -- and terrains -- of skateboarding. Those wheels, in (yep) turn, "feel perfectly circular when you're riding, but look like a square from the side when in motion." Furthermore, Patrick says, because of their modular design, they're faster than the traditional wheel: the sine-wave pattern of the wheels' treads reduces the surface area that makes contact with the ground ... which, in another turn, reduces friction.
Patrick and his team are marketing the wheels as technology for skateboarding. But it's easy to see them applied to other vehicles, too, from cars to robots to Segways -- to anything, really, that could take advantage of faster, slicker, and otherwise reinvented wheels.