'IT' Unveiled: A Self-Balancing Scooter

ByABC News via logo

N E W   Y O R K, Dec. 3, 2001 -- After nearly a year of speculation, Dean Kamen's mysterious machine — IT — was revealed on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.

In Internet discussions, eager technology enthusiasts and those ready for a Jetsons-like lifestyle guessed "IT" would be anything from a hovercraft to a high-speed scooter powered by an ultra-efficient Stirling engine.

While Kamen's invention, the Segway Human Transporter, does move people, it doesn't leave the ground — and it's powered by a battery.

The inventor revealed his two-wheeled personal transportation device, intended for a single standing rider, Monday on Good Morning America.

"This is the world's first self-balancing human transporter," Kamen said."You stand on this Segway Human Transporter and you think forward and then you go forward. If you think backward, you go backward."

A Smooth Walker

The transporter, which can go up to 12 miles an hour, looks more like a lawn mower than a scooter and has no brakes. It is designed to mimic the human body's ability to maintain its balance; riders control the speed and direction of the device simply by shifting their weight and using a manual turning mechanism on one of the handlebars.

"All of the knowledge that went into knowing how to walk is transferred to this machine," Kamen said. "When you stand on this machine, it kind of walks for you. It just does it smoothly and gracefully."

The 65-pound device, also known by its former code name, "Ginger," looks simple, but its inner workings are intricate.

Tilt sensors monitor the rider's center of gravity more than 100 times a second, and are able to signal both the direction and the speed to the device's electric motor and wheels.

Kamen says the Segway can take its rider up to 15 miles on a six-hour charge from a regular wall socket. He bills it as an environmentally friendly alternative to cars, and expects that in the future the devices will replace the car in urban centers.

The first models are expected to be available to consumers in about a year at a price of about $3,000, said Kamen.

Source of Endless Speculation

Kamen already has a series of high-profile inventions under his belt. He created a dialysis machine that is the size of a briefcase, a portable insulin pump and a wheelchair that climbs stairs, called iBot, which he had code-named "Fred."

Word of IT first leaked out in January when the media learned that a publisher had paid a $250,000 advance for a book about a device by Kamen the editor said could transform our lives, our cities and our thinking.

That sparked off a media frenzy — and the guessing game. But the high-powered innovators and thinkers Kamen showed his invention to — including technology heavyweights Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Steve Jobs — remained tight-lipped.

Bob Metcalf, a computer engineer who helped create the building blocks for the Internet, revealed a few details to ABCNEWS about Kamen's invention nearly a year before IT was revealed.

"I've seen it, and it is… more important than pantyhose and it's more important than the Internet," said Metcalf in an interview in January.

He said that on a scale of one to 10 — one being mundane and 10 being revolutionary — he would rank Kamen's invention "in the high nines." He implied that the device would contain a computer chip, that it may have to do with transportation, and that people would probably want to own more than one.

Kamen, who kept his invention a secret in the face of mass speculation, said his silence was not part of a plan to build public interest.

When information about his invention was leaked, he still had to file hundreds of patent claims.

"We always work on our confidential projects confidentially," Kamen said. "Unfortunately, somebody in their excitement let the world know what we were working on a year ago and we weren't ready."

Next Best Thing?

The United States Postal Service and the National Park Service have plans to field test a number of the personal transportation devices next year.

"We've got a quarter of a million letter carriers out on the street," said John Nolan, the deputy postmaster general, "and we've got the opportunity to increase efficiency reduce the wear and tear on their bodies and improve the environment all the same time."

But will it transform lives, cities and even thinking, as first hyped in the media? Futurists who considered themselves skeptics were initially impressed.

"This is a marvelous first device," said Paul Saffo, the director of the Institute for the Future. "It remains open to see if it's going to grow up and go out into the world at large, but it's clearly gotten far enough to be practical in places like warehouses and industrial campuses."

There does seem to be a clear consensus: It is a bold attempt to not just reinvent the wheel but to reinvent the ways wheels can be used.

ABCNEWS' Antonio Mora contributed to this report.

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