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REINVENTING THE WHEEL
Here "it" is: the inside story of the secret invention that so many
are buzzing about. Could this thing really change the world?
Sunday, Dec. 02, 2001
"Come to me!"
On a quiet Sunday morning in Silicon Valley, I am standing atop a
machine code-named Ginger--a machine that may be the most eagerly
awaited and wildly, if inadvertently, hyped high-tech product since
the Apple Macintosh. Fifty feet away, Ginger's diminutive inventor,
Dean Kamen, is offering instruction on how to use it, which in this
case means waving his hands and barking out orders.
"Just lean forward," Kamen commands, so I do, and instantly I start
rolling across the concrete right at him.
"Now, stop," Kamen says. How? This thing has no brakes. "Just think
about stopping." Staring into the middle distance, I conjure an image
of a red stop sign--and just like that, Ginger and I come to a halt.
"Now think about backing up." Once again, I follow instructions, and
soon I glide in reverse to where I started. With a twist of the
wrist, I pirouette in place, and no matter which way I lean or how
hard, Ginger refuses to let me fall over. What's going on here is all
perfectly explicable--the machine is sensing and reacting to subtle
shifts in my balance--but for the moment I am slack-jawed, baffled.
It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously observed that "any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." By that
standard, Ginger is advanced indeed.
Since last January it has also been the tech world's
most-speculated-about secret. That was when a book proposal about
Ginger, a.k.a. "IT," got leaked to the website Inside.com . Kamen had
been working on Ginger for more than a decade, and although the
author (with whom the inventor is no longer collaborating) never
revealed what Ginger was, his precis included over-the-top
assessments from some of Silicon Valley's mightiest kingpins. As big
a deal as the PC, said Steve Jobs; maybe bigger than the Internet,
said John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape, Amazon.com
and now Ginger.
In a heartbeat, hundreds of stories full of fevered theorizing gushed
forth in the press. Ginger was a hydrogen-powered hovercraft. Or a
magnetic antigravity device. Or, closer to the mark, a souped-up
scooter. Even the reprobates at South Park got into the act, spoofing
Ginger in a recent episode--the details of which, sadly, are
unprintable in a family magazine.
This week the guessing game comes to an end as Kamen unveils his baby
under its official name: Segway. Given the buildup, some are bound to
be disappointed. ("It won't beam you to Mars or turn lead into gold,"
shrugs Kamen. "So sue me.") But there is no denying that the Segway
is an engineering marvel. Developed at a cost of more than $100
million, Kamen's vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software
that mimics the human body's ability to maintain its balance. Not
only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no
gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider
for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity.
The commercial ambitions of Kamen and his team are as advanced as
their technical virtuosity. By stealing a slice of the $300
billion-plus transportation industry, Doerr predicts, the Segway Co.
will be the fastest outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales.
To get there, the firm has erected a 77,000-sq.-ft. factory a few
miles from its Manchester, N.H., headquarters that will be capable of
churning out 40,000 Segways a month by the end of next year.
Kamen's aspirations are even grander than that. He believes the
Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy."
He imagines them everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on
battlefields and factory floors, but especially on downtown sidewalks
from Seattle to Shanghai. "Cars are great for going long distances,"
Kamen says, "but it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use
a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb. asses around town."
In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from urban centers
to make room for millions of "empowered pedestrians"--empowered,
naturally, by Kamen's brainchild.
Kamen's dream of a Segway-saturated world won't come true overnight.
In fact, ordinary folks won't be able to buy the machines for at
least a year, when a consumer model is expected to go on sale for
about $3,000. For now, the first customers to test the Segway will be
deep-pocketed institutions such as the U.S. Postal Service and
General Electric, the National Parks Service and
Amazon.com--institutions capable of shelling out about $8,000 apiece
for industrial-strength models. And Kamen's dreamworld won't arrive
at all unless he and his team can navigate the array of obstacles
that are sure to be thrown up by competitors and ever cautious
For the past three months, Kamen has allowed TIME behind the veil of
secrecy as he and his team grappled with the questions that they will
confront--about everything from safety and pricing to the challenges
of launching a product with the country at war and the economy in
recession. Some of their answers were smooth and assured; others less
polished. But one thing was clear. As Kamen sees it, all these issues
will quickly fade if the question most people ask about the Segway is
"How do I get one?"
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