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A Guru's World #26: Segway Hype
Author: JonnyGURU
Date Posted: December 10th, 2001

Segway Hype

This week, after over a year of rumors and hype, Dean Kamen's invention, code named "Ginger", but until this week was simply known as "it", was finally announced to the public.

The Sunday night prior to the official release of "it" on Good Morning America on ABC, Dave, president of SL Central, reminded me about its release. He had hoped that it was an alternative fuel. Not that the idea is so far fetched since Kamen has converted motors to use propane instead of gas in the past. But we have alternative fuels in this world that we simply don't use (red tape, industry lobbyists, take your pick) and an alternative fuel wouldn't be something that would show up on a mere morning show (sorry ABC). Besides, the invention was said to be something that brought laughter to some of the biggest CEOs in our country. I'm not sure laughter would be an appropriate action to an alternative fuel... unless the alternate fuel was nitrous oxide

I remember seeing the drawing of a scooter from one of Kamen's patent files and repeating to my self over and over again, "Please don't let this stupid thing be that damn scooter."

It was that damn scooter.

Call "It" Ginger.... Call it Segway, the "official", or "trade name" for Ginger.

Some will likely still call it "it" in bittersweet sarcasm simply because of all of the hype that had lead up to it and the somewhat, but not completely, disappointing result of all of the said hype and attempts at secrecy.

In January 2000, a leak of Dean Kamen's latest endeavor hit the streets as press scrambled to find out what all of the secrecy was about. It was to be the greatest invention of the century from one of the greatest inventors of the century. This could be big!

It turns out that the reason for the secrecy was because Kamen did not have all of his patents in place and that the simplicity of the device could easily be hijacked and modified to the extent where his patents would not apply. The finished product had to be ready for the public and patented before the world would be allowed to know about it.

It just so happens that The Segway was relatively simple. It seems that a good deal of what makes the iBot (a motorized wheelchair that balances itself with gyroscopes and can climb up stairs) so revolutionary, is what makes the Segway "revolutionary". I'm not going to say that I could go out into the garage and create my own self-balancing scooter that moves on a whim, but perhaps an easy idea to "steal" for those in the industry of electric motors and mobility devices. It seems to be one of those "why didn't I think of that" type of products. A disappointment? For some, yes. For others, not quite.

I really should retract my previous statement that the scooter is "stupid", but the press had this thing hyped to the point where I expected my entire world to change from the moment I left the house that morning. I'm a bit bitter. I like a gizmo as much as the next guy (have you seen my network topology?). On my last trip to Wal-Mart I was actually zipping down the aisles on an electric Razor-type scooter, as my wife was looking for ear rings, knocking down lobotomized smock wearing workers* left and right.

So "it" is simple, especially given its most impressive feature, it's ability to balance itself, already existed in a previous Kamen invention. But despite its overall simplicity, I wasn't experiencing overwhelming disappointment either, once it was released and people actually saw the Segway in action. At least there was less disappointment upon seeing the Segway in person than there was seeing the drawing of the Segway after the "leak". For those who were disappointed with the drawing early this year, all I can say is, "You saw it on the Internet. What did you expect?"

Is Segway really Earth shattering? Not in my opinion. Greatest thing since the PC, as Steve Jobs is quoted to say? No. Bigger than the Internet? One would think that this was Al Gore's thought, but even John Doerr, venture capitalist behind Netscape and Amazon, was impressed with "it" to this extent. I don't think it's hardly bigger than the Internet, but upon release of The Segway, I could begin to see the potential for such a device and how it could effect or change the life of someone that doesn't even use the Internet.

All of the hype seems to have been originally generated from a former collaborator of Kamen's that loved to write and couldn't keep his mouth shut. In reflection, this person reminded me a bit about the staff of Tom's Hardware (in a good way). Give us a picture of the Northbridge, the CPU socket, the Benchmarks, but not the motherboard because the Non-Disclosure Agreement doesn't allow it. Beautiful!

You see, this insider never revealed what "it" ever was, but alluded to the "greatness" of the invention by quoting words of praise from people in technology that had an opportunity to try "it" out first hand, early on. This hype had lead to investigations into Kamen and his latest patent requests. The Internet, being as near infinite tool for information and misinformation as it can be and usually is, was used to uncover very early on that "it" might simply be a two-wheel scooter... and then interest died.

Apparently, this drawing of a scooter satisfied the curiosity of some; while others scoffed that "it" couldn't POSSIBLY be a "toy".

Why would Jobs, Doerr, Bob Metcalfe (founder of 3Com), and Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) stand behind this invention and say that this may be the greatest thing since sliced bread? I supposed you'd just have to ride one.

Even Good Morning America's co-anchor Diane Sawyer looked at The Segway during it's official unveiling on 12/03/2001 on the show, and had nothing more to say then "That's IT?"

I just smiled and said, "Please tell me it flies".

Not until she hopped on her own Segway and had a chance to zip around the park outside of the studio did she begin to understand. Her inner child came out as she zipped around with one leg off of The Segway's platform. She begged Kamen if she could ride through the obstacle course designed for the "professional" Segway riders present during the release. Kamen seemed mildly annoyed, but what did he expect.

Co-anchor Charlie Gibson showed a bit more refrain by limiting his hijinks to riding The Segway with his hands stuffed in his pocket. "I'm moving forward! I'm moving backwards!" he exclaimed. So that's the draw. The Segway moves without a throttle and has no brakes.

So how does this thing work and WHY is it so revolutionary when compared to just another motorized scooter?

On the simple side of things: The Segway is made of aluminum to keep the weight down and to dissipate heat from the motors eliminating the need for cooling fans. No fans keep the weight down some more and won't add drain to the batteries.

The Segway uses an ignition key that is not only unique to the device, to prevent theft, but also stores performance attributes like steering controls and maximum speed. Three different color keys give you three different maximum speeds.

Each wheel has it's own electric motor. This allows for quick steering much in the same way a tank steers and eliminates the need for a differential.

On the more complex side of things: Each wheel, as it is not being powered, acts as a generator to charge the batteries back up, and if one motor fails, the other motor can and will power BOTH WHEELS. Also, the device maintains it's balance using three gyroscopes at three different axes, but as a safeguard, two additional gyros are installed to maintain a level platform to prevent the user from falling flat on their face.

My favorite part of The Segway is how easily it moves. Just a simple gesture in the direction you wish to move in, and you're going to move in that direction. Kamen, from time to time, has made it sound like The Segway moves using "thought control". Of course, there are no mind reading sensors in the Segway. But there are sensors that will pick up the slightest lean in any direction, telling The Segway which way to go.

Kamen's intention for the Segway is clearly to replace walking. He has said this both live and on his website. This has already been opposed from many angles... first; does Kamen really think he's going to change the law that prevents motorized vehicles, other than wheelchairs, on sidewalks? In five years time, are we going to have "Segway lanes"? We don't even have bike lanes in every city! As it is bicycles aren't even legal on sidewalks, but that law is rarely enforced unless there is an incident caused from the action. I sort of get this feeling that a couple people zipping around on Segways at 12 MPH may cause a few "incidents". Second, we're a bunch of fat bastards in this country to start with. Now we're being asked to consider giving up simple walking. And, with the Segway moving with nothing more than just a lean in the appropriate direction, hands or no hands, I can see Segways zipping along down sidewalks as their riders eat Double Bacon Cheeseburgers. Would Jared Fogle have lost 235 pounds if he rode a Segway to the Subway sandwich shop instead of walking?

I know, I'm sounding jaded, and honestly I have wanted my own simple Razor scooter (maybe this Christmas?) for some time so I can zip around the warehouse where I work. But as an alternative to urban pedestrianism, shouldn't we make moving walkways and shuttles or monorails a solution for ALL of those who want an alternative to taking their car for short jaunts? I believe the term I am defining here is MASS transit.

As a cyclist, I know the inconvenience factor of a bicycle for short trips and how difficult it can be to simply find somewhere to ride that won't either kill a pedestrian or get killed by a car. Sometimes, locking and unlocking the bicycle to a parking meter and strapping a helmet on and off can take as much time as the trip itself. I'm all for a low emissions alternative to driving, but to imply the Segway as an alternative to walking for those who happen to have $3000 to spend on this device, bothers me a bit. How about lower the price to $2000 and insist the other $1000 be spent on a treadmill?

On Segway's website, the device is touted to "improve mobility" and to "improve the community". Certainly, it beats the pants off of using a car for short trips. The long life battery has little to no emissions (including what it takes to charge it back up) and it's easier to talk to someone from Segway to Segway, than from car to car, although we may still experience the problem of people talking on their cell phones and "driving" at the same time. I can't help but feel that those who now drive will continue to drive and those who now walk or ride a bike will "Segway" instead.

I'm sure Kamen's intention is not to encourage laziness. Kamen always has the best intentions, and certainly Dean is no couch potato himself. He hardly ever watches television, and he might be a bit out of touch with the real world as you and I know it and thus, not realize how out of shape we tend to be. How out of touch can he be? I had seen on an interview that he had attended a friend's wedding and this friend was the daughter of Shirley McClain. Kamen had been sitting right next to Shirley McClain and Warren Beatty. When asked how he couldn't notice who he was sitting next to, he said it didn't matter because 50 years from now, people wouldn't know who Shirley McClain was, but all of the laws of physics that are hundreds, and some thousands, of years old will still apply. Little did Dean know that by 50 years from now, Shirley would have reincarnated at least twice!The first run of Segways will be used in different trades. Amazon's large warehouse will obtain a few to make it easy to get from one side of the warehouse to the other. Police that walk a beat and mail carriers will also get a chance to try the Segway before the $3000 consumer level product is available to Joe Couch-Potato.

Where I see a great deal of potential for Segways are for those who cannot walk well, but can stand. Much to my amazement, in all of the interviews and all of the articles I have read about Kamen and his Segway, this was never brought up. This surprised me since Kamen is well known for many medical products including mobility products, such as the iBot.

If the Segway moves with a slight lean, wouldn't it be possible to put a physically handicapped person on a Segway and simply tell them to lean in the direction that they wish to travel. If the person can stand, therefore making a wheelchair "overkill", wouldn't it be a better solution and perhaps a bit more stimulating than zipping around at 1/4th the speed in a Quickie? Maybe for those who cannot walk for any long distance, but can stand, this could be a great alternative to a 3 or 4 wheel sit-down scooter.

Of course I want to put out there right now that my intentions are to suggest the Segway as an addition to, and not an alternative to, actual physical therapy that could help a physically challenged person to learn or regain their ability to walk. It's just that I feel for a normal quality of life, a certain degree of mobility is required that the Segway could provide.

Then again, I may be wrong. Certainly most of Kamen's inventions have been medical devices to improve the life of others who must use devices such as kidney dialysis and wheelchairs. Maybe Dean thought about the Segway as being nothing more than an upright version of his iBot, until he found out that it wouldn't work as such for most people. I have taken into consideration that perhaps the action required to queue the Segway to move in the first place actually requires the rider to already have the inherit balance and motor skills to walk in the first place. My wife tells me that someone with Cerebral Palsy, for example, would not be able to keep the device moving in the same direction due to a lack of balance that would enable him or her to lean. This would be a shame, because in my opinion this aspect of the Segway, to mobilize the nearly immobile, should be a top priority, and in my eyes more noble, for the inventor rather than to give an alternative means of mobility to those of us who have had no problem moving in the first place.

Footnote: * One would have to have seen the Wal-Mart parody on Mad TV to understand. Otherwise, this column explains my general Wal-Mart attitude.

Disclaimer: My wife is a teacher of handicapped kids in the public school system. A lot of her kids are in wheelchairs and physical therapy is a large part of their daily schedule. So needless to say, the elevation of the standard of living for someone physically challenged will be a "bandwagon" I will hop on any chance I get.


Here's a compilation of compics I thought were appropriate:

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