With its knee-high tripedal form and the gentle electronic squeak it makes when displeased, Honda's new Uni-Cub β resembles one of the sentient gun turrets from Portal. Thankfully, it's not, or we'd be full of holes. In fact, this self-balancing robo-wheel is one of the most futuristic forms of transport we've tried.
The Uni-Cub is an electric unicycle, sort of. We say 'sort of' because its one very specialised wheel is actually made up of many smaller, sideways-facing wheels. The little rings rotate side-to-side while the main wheel spins forwards and backwards, giving the Uni-Cub a full 360° range of motion.
The new model has a stand for when it's idle, although it doesn't seem to need it - left to its own devices, it just hovers on its single wheel. When you sit down, it’s like sitting on a comfy, padded stool - sturdy, with only a slight impression of movement as it checks itself against instability. It’s actually a bit like a posture stool, because you have to keep your back straight in order to be able to tip forward and get moving.
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As with fellow gyro-balanced Transport of the Future the Segway, you move the Uni-Cub by leaning. You place your hands on your legs or in your lap, straighten your back (unless you've got good posture, in which case it'll be straight already) and just loom towards where you want to go. The more meaningfully you lean, the more the Uni-Cub accelerates.
It feels a bit like you’re a levitating monk, whooshing quietly along at thigh level and then leaning imperiously backwards when you want to come to a dignified halt. The speed is easy and intuitive to control; I whizzed around a room full of people, expensive cameras and several million pounds’ worth of robot, confident that I’d be able to stop if I needed to.
As with a motorbike, when you want to turn, you look where you want to go, lean in and the wheel magically swings around to point along your line of sight. Under the instruction of first-timers the Uni-Cub doesn’t quite turn on a postage stamp, with.a turning circle of afoot or two, but under the control of the Honda techs it was able to pivot pretty much on its axis.
While the Uni-Cub is enormous fun to ride and it may very well be the ultimate office chair (we're told they use them at Honda HQ for the world's whooshiest meetings), it's very much a research platform. When we asked the Uni-Cub's designers if they were planning on bringing self-stabilising, bi-directional wheels to Honda's cars, they said we're more likely to see this tech emerging in motorbikes, bicycles and e-bikes in the near future, which sounds exciting. The technology could also be of use to people who currently use electric wheelchairs or mobility scooters - the Uni-Cub's high, upright position, quiet motors and gliding stability (plus the fact that it can climb inclines) could be transferred to many new kinds of personal transport.