Straight Outta Phoenix: Local Skater Lands on Augmented Reality Soda Bottles

At age 30, Phoenix native Chad Hornish finally earned the big break he has been seeking since 1999, appearing on 100,000 unique soda bottles that come alive in the world of augmented reality.
At age 30, Phoenix native Chad Hornish finally earned the big break he has been seeking since 1999, appearing on 100,000 unique soda bottles that come alive in the world of augmented reality. Elias Weiss

He was a skater boy. She said, “See you in virtual reality, boy.”

Like Avril Lavigne sang on her hit 2002 single "Sk8r Boi," Chad Hornish, Phoenix born and bred, is a baggy clothes-wearing punk superstar.

And this skater boy knows a thing or two about patience and sacrifice.

Finding him at a local skate park is nothing to gawk at, 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 windfall of his dogged career so far — an unlikely sponsorship that has thrust the up-and-coming athlete into the national spotlight.

The 30-year-old professional inline skater feels more comfortable standing on eight polyurethane wheels than he does on his own two feet. Probably because he devoted his life to skating at just 8 years old.

“Skating is my whole entire life,” Hornish said. “I see everything in the world as something I could skate on.”

click to enlarge Chad Hornish grinds a chain-link fence in Phoenix. - JONATHAN LABEZ / INTUITION SKATE SHOP
Chad Hornish grinds a chain-link fence in Phoenix.
Jonathan Labez / Intuition Skate Shop

Back in 1999, Hornish spent his time after school glued to his boxy, staticky television watching inline skaters drill hot dog grinds, safety grabs, and helicopters at ESPN's X Games.

He asked his mother to start dropping him off at a local skate park on her way to work, and she obliged. His babysitter gifted him his first pair of skates.

“That basically became my day care,” Hornish told Phoenix New Times during a recent interview at the well-manicured Anthem Community Park’s skate park, one of his favorites in an elegant suburb just north of Phoenix.

Inline skating is no longer an event at the X Games. But Hornish steeled himself for the future and refused to hang up his skates.

He dropped out of Thunderbird High School in North Phoenix just one week into his freshman year to pursue skating, a decision he stands by to this day.

“I didn't care about school, I didn't care about anything. I just wanted to skate,” Hornish said. “I didn't have a prom or a graduation, but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.”

He’s used to making peanuts 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 skaters like Tony Hawk, revered as the greatest skateboarder of all time, have made a handsome living competing on professional teams like the USA Skateboarding National Team.

click to enlarge Phoenix native Chad Hornish catches some serious hang time after launching off a concrete ramp at Anthem Community Skate Park. - ELIAS WEISS
Phoenix native Chad Hornish catches some serious hang time after launching off a concrete ramp at Anthem Community Skate Park.
Elias Weiss

The life of a small-time professional athlete is not as glamorous as it seems. For many, it’s a life of physical, emotional, and financial sacrifice.

“I’ve sacrificed basically everything for skating,” Hornish said.

To make ends meet, Hornish can be found driving around Phoenix for Uber, often making less than $10 an hour. As this spring approached, he felt old, and a little foolish. But if there’s anything Chad Hornish is not, it’s a quitter.

After more than two decades of rejection, tough decisions, and living on poverty wages, Hornish hit a big break in March.

Now, the Northwest Phoenix resident is blazing a new trail skating into the world of augmented reality.

Augmented reality uses a real-world setting while virtual reality is a computer-generated experience that's completely virtual.

It all started last year when a local fan filmed a clip of the homegrown skater grinding on a roof rafter. Hornish uploaded the clip to Instagram and it went viral, with more than 7 million views and 700,000 likes, attracting the attention of 16,000 new followers on the social media platform.

He also grabbed the attention of Seattle-based Jones Soda Co., a soft drink company known since 1986 for its colorful cane sugar beverages and artistic labels.

The company printed 100,000 labels featuring a black-and-white photo of Hornish 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 relentless years, it’s the first product with his name on it.

But these are no ordinary soda pops.

Hover a mobile phone camera over the label and it comes to life. In a mixed-reality universe only accessible through a cellphone screen, Hornish begins to skate around the bottle, performing tricks at familiar locations across metro Phoenix.

He was one of just 15 professional athletes chosen for Jones Soda’s maiden collection of reel labels, a unique intersection of athleticism and futuristic technology.

The earliest functional augmented reality systems that provided immersive mixed-reality experiences for users were developed by the U.S. Air Force in 1992. But the emerging technology has gained traction with the public in recent years, including retail mammoths like Walmart rolling out augmented reality lenses in late 2021 for consumers to visualize products in their own homes.

Amazon is working on its own augmented reality lens for a new smart-home product, journalists discovered just last month.

Augmented reality liberates users from screen-bound experiences by offering instinctual interactions with data in their living spaces and with their friends. For Hornish, a hometown hero with a chip on his shoulder, reel labels are a stark departure from the other augmented reality systems available for public use.

They’re not for practical use. They’re for fun.

The X Games might have done away with inline skating, but this new campaign is a sign of the sport’s dedicated following and willingness to adapt to changing and uncertain times, Hornish said.

He’s adapting, too, making less than minimum wage with no job experience in the real world. It’s taken a toll on his relationships and his mental health at times, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m 20 years behind working a real job,” Hornish said. “That is a massive sacrifice, but it’s finally paying off for me.”

click to enlarge Chad Hornish shows off his skills at a skate park in Anthem, an opulent suburb just north of Phoenix. - ELIAS WEISS
Chad Hornish shows off his skills at a skate park in Anthem, an opulent suburb just north of Phoenix.
Elias Weiss

It’s not easy trying to make it big out of Phoenix, he added. Unlike Los Angeles, the Mecca of freestyle inline skating filled with diverse terrain and always in the national spotlight, Phoenix's urban cityscape is largely flat with few elevated features like hills or staircases.

What Phoenix does have, though, is plenty of skate parks. And that’s where Hornish shines.

“I’m a product of my environment,” he said. “I’m from Phoenix, so I’m going to thrive here.”

It’s also difficult to springboard a prolific career in sport starting at age 30, but Hornish is up to the task. He’s going to skate as long as his body allows him to do so, he said, and doesn’t see an end in sight.

He hopes aspiring young skaters in the Valley will follow his example.

“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 can end up on a soda bottle, or a Wheaties box, or maybe in the X Games or the Olympics someday.”

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss