After Mystery Hype, Kamen
Rolls Out A Scooter
Invention May Have Zip...
But How Will It Sell?
By Gareth Cook,
Boston Globe Staff

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 code-named ''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 transporter,'' Kamen announced on ''Good Morning America,'' where he unveiled a device called the Segway Human Transporter, which zips along the ground as a standing 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 Kamen-watching had become almost a mania and Internet boards blazed with outlandish guesses about ''It.'' As details of the Segway scooter emerged yesterday, reaction ranged from high-tech glee to disappointment that a year of hype had culminated 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 challenge 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 battery-powered and very quiet, as virtually reading their minds. In yesterday's demonstration 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 probably would find niche markets - such as in warehouses, or on company campuses - but that in its current incarnation it was unlikely to spark a transportation revolution.
Yossi Sheffi, codirector of MIT's Center for Transportation 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 first, 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 salespeople.''
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 potential to be highly efficient, but so far has proved impractical for transportation.
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 oil.
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 scooter 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 12/4/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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