- Apple computer founder Steve Jobs said it could be as
big as the personal computer. Other technology gurus predicted that it
would be bigger than the Internet, and that the mysterious invention
''It'' or ''Ginger'' would change cities forever.
- Yesterday, after months of speculation, New Hampshire
inventor Dean Kamen revealed his secret to the world: an electric scooter
that won't tip over.
- ''This is the world's first self-balancing human
Kamen announced on ''Good Morning America,'' where he unveiled a device
called the Segway Human Transporter, which zips along the ground as a
rider leans and pulls on its handlebars. ''It is sort of like putting on
a pair of magic sneakers.''
- So ended months of intense curiosity, during which
had become almost a mania and Internet boards blazed with outlandish
about ''It.'' As details of the Segway scooter emerged yesterday, reaction
ranged from high-tech glee to disappointment that a year of hype had
in a machine that looks like an oversized weed-trimmer. One tech guru even
suggests that the scooter isn't ''It'' at all, that Kamen has a bigger
surprise on the way.
- For now, however, Kamen and his new company face a
every bit as tough as the $100 million effort to develop the scooter's
technology: capturing the public imagination.
- ''That is the next story: How is the public going to
react to these?'' said Lou DeLorme, who is overseeing a scooter test for
the National Park Service. ''Just because you have something good doesn't
mean the public is going to buy it.''
- The Segway HT, which will be manufactured at a plant
outside Manchester, N.H., can travel about 12 miles per hour and uses a
system of gyroscopes and computers to control the wheels, sensing when
the rider is leaning and preventing the scooter from tipping over.
- Riders have described the scooter, which is
and very quiet, as virtually reading their minds. In yesterday's
the scooter climbed up and down ramps and over uneven terrain. Even novice
riders, such as Diane Sawyer of ''Good Morning America,'' seemed able to
control it easily.
- The scooter will not be available to consumers until
the end of next year, Kamen said, though institutional consumers, including
the US Postal Service, will be testing it in the coming months.
- But the scooter is a far cry from the world-changing
innovation that sparked entire Web sites devoted to guessing what it was
after word of the project leaked out in January. It does not fly, or create
a plentiful supply of cheap, non-petroleum energy. One disappointed poster
decried it as a toy ''no better than a pet rock.''
- More dispassionate observers said that the machine
would find niche markets - such as in warehouses, or on company campuses
- but that in its current incarnation it was unlikely to spark a
- Yossi Sheffi, codirector of MIT's Center for
Studies, said that the price (perhaps $3,000) and the weight (probably
65 pounds) could place it outside the bounds of the mass consumer market.
Another crucial factor, especially in the Northeast, is the fact that it
does not protect the rider from the elements.
- Segway is not trying to conquer the consumer market
though. Instead, the company is talking to corporations and government
agencies, including the Boston Police Department.
- Analysts said that one of the great challenges will be
finding customers for the product as it is refined.
- ''Any awesome innovation had better have a way of rolling
out that is cash-flow-positive for many steps along the way,'' said Ken
Morse, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center at MIT's Sloan
School of Management. ''The challenge the invention faces is to make the
first few customers very happy and to have them become missionary
- Yesterday's announcement made no mention of another area
in which Kamen is known to be working, and which fueled speculation about
the scope of his project: the Stirling engine. The Stirling holds the
to be highly efficient, but so far has proved impractical for
- If Kamen somehow had perfected the Stirling engine and
adapted it for a scooter, the implications would be enormous, instantly
reducing the cost of transportation and the country's reliance on
- Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and a friend of Kamen's
who is familiar with the project, said those who are disappointed that
the scooter doesn't live up to the hype might be jumping the gun. The
announced yesterday, he said in an e-mail, is not ''It.''
- ''Dean Kamen still has a few more tricks up his sleeve,''
Metcalf wrote, ''and you ain't seen nothing yet.''
- This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on
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