Phoenix pro skater Chad Hornish lands on augmented reality Jones soda bottles
He was a skateboarder. She said, “See you in virtual reality, boy.”
As Avril Lavigne sang on her 2002 single “Sk8r Boi,” Phoenix-born and raised Chad Hornish is a baggy-wearing punk superstar.
And this skater knows something about patience and sacrifice.
Finding him at a local skatepark isn’t surprising, but you might not expect to find his face on a soda bottle in an artificial reality.
These days, that’s where he lives.
It’s the biggest boon of his dogged career so far – an unlikely sponsorship that thrust the promising athlete into the national spotlight.
The 30-year-old professional skater feels more comfortable standing on eight polyurethane wheels than on his two feet. Probably because he dedicated his life to skating at only 8 years old.
“Skating is my whole life,” said Hornish. “I see everything in the world as something I could skate on.”
In 1999, Hornish spent his after-school time glued to his square, static television watching inline skaters do hot dogs, safety holds and helicopters at ESPN’s X Games.
He asked his mom to start dropping him off at a local skatepark on her way to work, and she agreed. Her babysitter gave her her first pair of skates.
“It became my daycare centre,” said Hornish Phoenix New Times during a recent interview at the well-maintained Anthem Community Park skate park, one of his favorites in a swanky suburb just north of Phoenix.
Inline skating is no longer an event at the X Games. But Hornish prepared for the future and refused to hang up his skates.
He dropped out of Thunderbird High School in North Phoenix just a week into his freshman year to pursue skating, a decision he maintains to this day.
“I didn’t care about school, I didn’t care about everything. I just wanted to skate,” said Hornish. “I didn’t have a prom or graduation, but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.”
He has a habit of making peanuts while skating on the “minor league” circuit, most recently appearing at the Franky Morales Invitational at SkateBird Miami, the first entertainment venue to feature a state-of-the-art skate park.
Top-flight skateboarders like Tony Hawk, revered as the greatest skateboarder of all time, have made a good living competing on professional teams like the US National Skateboarding Team.
The life of a small professional athlete is not as glamorous as it seems. For many, it is a life of physical, emotional and financial sacrifice.
“I pretty much sacrificed everything for skating,” said Hornish.
To make ends meet, Hornish can be found driving around Phoenix for Uber, often earning less than $10 an hour. As this spring approached, he felt old and a bit silly. But if there’s anything Chad Hornish isn’t, it’s a quitter.
After more than two decades of rejection, tough decisions and starvation wages, Hornish took a big break in March.
Now the Northwest Phoenix resident is opening up a new skating rink in the world of augmented reality.
Augmented reality uses a real-world setting while virtual reality is a computer-generated experience that is completely virtual.
It all started last year when a local fan filmed a clip of the local skater grinding on a roof rafter. Hornish uploaded the clip to Instagram and it went viral, with over 7 million views and 700,000 likes, catching the attention of 16,000 new followers on the social media platform.
It also caught the eye of Seattle-based Jones Soda Co., a soft drink company known since 1986 for its colorful cane sugar drinks and artistic labels.
The company printed 100,000 labels featuring a black-and-white photo of Hornish’s tail stalling on a concrete ramp and affixed them to cyan-colored glass bottles of berry lemonade soda. The bottles hit store shelves across the country in April.
After more than 20 hard years, this is the first product bearing his name.
But these are no ordinary sodas.
Pass a mobile phone camera over the label and it comes to life. In a mixed-reality universe accessible only through a cellphone screen, Hornish begins skating around the bottle, performing tricks in familiar locations around the Phoenix subway.
He was one of 15 professional athletes chosen for Jones Soda’s first-ever reel label collection, a unique intersection of athleticism and futuristic technology.
The first working augmented reality systems that provided users with immersive mixed reality experiences were developed by the US Air Force in 1992. But the emerging technology has been gaining traction with the public in recent years, including technology giants. with retail like Walmart rolling out augmented reality lenses in late 2021 for consumers to view products at home.
Amazon is working on its own augmented reality lens for a new smart home product, reporters found last month.
Augmented reality frees users from screen-bound experiences by providing instinctive interactions with data in their living spaces and with friends. For Hornish, a hometown hero with a chip on his shoulder, the reel tags are a stark departure from other augmented reality systems available for public use.
They are not intended for practical use. It’s for fun.
The X Games may have done away with inline skating, but this new campaign is a sign of the sport’s dedication and willingness to adapt to changing and uncertain times, Hornish said.
He also adapts, earning less than minimum wage with no real-world work experience. It has taken a toll on his relationships and his sanity at times, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m 20 years behind a real job,” Hornish said. “It’s a huge sacrifice, but it’s finally paying off for me.”
It’s not easy trying to grow Phoenix, he added. Unlike Los Angeles, the mecca of freestyle inline skating filled with varied terrain and always in the national spotlight, Phoenix’s cityscape is largely flat with few raised features like hills or stairs.
What Phoenix has, however, is plenty of skate parks. And that’s where Hornish shines.
“I am a product of my environment,” he says. “I’m from Phoenix, so I’m going to thrive here.”
Launching a prolific career in the sport from the age of 30 is also difficult, but Hornish is up to it. He’ll skate as long as his body allows, he says, and sees no end in sight.
He hopes aspiring young skaters in the valley will follow his lead.
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” Hornish said. “Being an individual is cool, and rollerblading is a very individual sport. If you stick with it, you may end up with a bottle of soda or a box of Wheaties, or maybe someday at the X’s. Games or the Olympics.