New York, December 3, 2001–Inventor Dean Kamen this morning unveiled his invention, variously known as “Ginger” and “It,” ending a full year of speculation. He demonstrated the device on ABCs Good Morning America. Was It worth the wait? It depends on what your definition of “It” is. An electric scooter is a bit of a disappointment to those who were hoping for a Back-to-the-Future hoverboard or a Stirling engine-powered device that would vastly reduce gasoline consumption. Kamen himself has tried to minimize anticipation. A statement on his companys Web site claimed that the rumors and speculation had far exceeded the device itself.
Gingers official name is Segway. The rider stands between two wheels on a platform, and grasps a T-shaped handlebar. Inventor Kamen says you only have to “think” about which way you want to go, but the machine senses changes in your balance and takes them as directions.
Segway has a range of 15 miles on a single battery, weighs around 60-70 lb., and will cost around $3,000 when it hits the market. The models used by GMA anchors Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer were limited to 12 MPH, but Kamen hinted that the scooter was capable of speeds two or three times higher. Gibson and Sawyer had no trouble maneuvering the devices, despite never having seen them before. Spotters trotted alongside, but were unnecessary.
Kamen is best known for his inventions in the medical field, especially in the area of administering medicines and dialysis. He invented the first wearable infusion pump, a home dialysis machine, an arterial stent, and an astounding gyro-stabilized, microprocessor-controlled wheel chair, the iBOT. This latter device, currently under clinical trials, is a four-wheel-drive wheelchair that can traverse mud and sand, climb curbs and stairs, and actually raise up and maneuver on two wheels, balancing just as surely as we do on two legs.
The technological breakthroughs in iBOT, along with patents filed by Kamens company, DEKA Research and Development, first raised the speculation that Ginger was a personal transportation device. A sketch on the first page of Kamens patent application, “Personal Mobility Vehicles and Methods”, shows a young woman riding a two-wheeled scooter–with side-by-side wheels instead of the usual fore and aft arrangement, very much like Segway.
Segway depends heavily on microprocessors for its operation. It has to react to balance shifts before a person can even perceive them, as well as to uneven terrain, compensating with gyroscopes and rapid, yet subtle, inputs to the wheel motors.
Initial shipments of Segway will be to industries with large warehouses, such as Amazon.com, and to the Postal Service and police departments, where they will be tested to see if they can reduce the wear and tear on feet and make mail carriers and patrol officers more effective.
Commercial availability wont come until the end of 2002, but the anticipated price of Segway puts it firmly into the realm of toys for the wealthy. Will it ultimately revolutionize transportation?
Let the speculation begin.