Early December finally saw the unveiling of Ginger -- the brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen -- which was touted as a revolutionary means of transportation.
After a feverish promotion, it was perhaps inevitable that the rollout of the
Segway Human Transporter would be somewhat of a letdown. The device, for all its sleek design, looks like the result of an unholy coupling between a scooter and a weed whacker.
Yet it boasts some impressive features. The Segway can range up to 17 miles on a single battery charge, under optimum conditions. It travels at up to 12.5 mph, about three times faster than a quick walker. Already, the U.S. Post Office and the National Park Service have signed on as early customers, though the Segway won't be available to retail customers until sometime late next year.
But it's not yet clear the device can live up to its impressive billing, says Chris Conley, who teaches design at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design, the largest such graduate school in the U.S. We talked to Conley about the real-life prospects and shortcomings of the Segway Human Transporter.
TSC: You raise questions about whether it's fair to call the Segway a genuine innovation. Why is that?
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It's hard to say if it's truly an innovative product, because it's only had an impact in terms of the savvy way it's been launched. They're trying to build momentum for it by claiming it will revolutionize personal transport, but that's completely unclear. The Segway has to evolve and diffuse into everyday life to truly be called an innovation.
Dean Kamen kind of followed a strategy developed during the Internet boom: Make sure everybody knows you're working on something that's going to revolutionize the world, but keep the details absolutely secret. The issue is, should they have kept it secret so long, vs. getting a head start on explaining it to people. People would have known about it, would have tried it out at the mall -- it would have been more normal, rather than gadgety or too high-tech.
A similar thing happened with
, the company that designed a new microprocessor, the Crusoe, to compete with
and revolutionize mobile computing. They're doing well as a company, but the hype was that they were going to revolutionize things and bring down all the big players. The adoption of technology happens at a much slower pace. All the infrastructure that's needed for buying, selling and servicing products makes it hard to revolutionize
an industry with a single product.
Now over the next five to 10 years, the question is whether Segway can bring the cost down, whether they can get significant distribution and get people to adopt it. That will be an ongoing struggle and challenge. The technical merits and the cool factor are not arguable. The interface is good; it's easy to use. But whether it's going to revolutionize transportation
TSC: That said, can you comment more on what you see as the strengths of its design?
The design is actually very sophisticated and easy to use.
Kamen applied gyroscopes and computing technology so you don't have to worry about the balance of the machine and can just lean in the direction you want to go. Apparently it's very easy to learn. The wheels seem big enough that they can roll over fairly uneven ground, again with the balancing technology.
TSC: And what are some of the weaknesses you'd point to?
For a pedestrian-friendly vehicle, it's going to be much wider than people are used to. Even bicycles are much narrower than the Segway, and people are made to walk bikes on sidewalks. All those everyday problems will determine whether it's really feasible for 200 or 300 people
to ride a Segway in a little downtown area.
It's also quite heavy
the Segway weighs between 60 and 80 pounds. I can't lift many 60-pound things a day and not get very tired. I noticed that on a couple of
company promotional videos, they showed a guy using a ramp to get it into a minivan. Well, then you have to have a ramp.
I think what we'll find is society will evaluate it and use it in the best places they can. And it will be different than any of us can predict at this point. The deal with the Post Office is a very smart move. It would get the Segway in front of lots of consumers in terms of everyday life.
TSC: You've made the point that adoption of a technology like this is likely to happen over decades. Why do you think it would take so long?
We're well into our 20th year of computers being adopted. In the U.S. I don't know what the current number is, but we certainly haven't reached 75 percent
penetration of PCs, though many people have access to them. Think about that, after 20 years of adoption.
PDAs are another example. Until the
came along, PDAs had a very niche application.
Newton is a good analogy to Segway. It was lauded in tech and design circles as a great, visionary product, but it completely flopped because
it didn't deal with the realities of everyday life. It was slow to do functions like entering an address. Its handwriting recognition, which was promoted heavily, was laughable. Though it was the best handwriting technology at the time, it was not good enough to make it into people's everyday life.
The Palm Pilot tried to do the right feature set instead of all the features, and it made things simpler. It was the first PDA that got widely adopted, and it spawned the marketplace everybody's going after now.
TSC: So when it's available, would you consider buying a Segway?
I live about a half-hour walk from work. I would love to use this instead of taking short cab rides. Depending on what price comes out, I'd compare that to
the cost of taking cabs over the course of two or three years and see if that two or three thousand dollars could pay for itself. But one immediate thought is, where would I keep it?
Also, people feel weird doing something new and different. If I go down Michigan Avenue on a Segway, are people going to be staring at me,
so would I be causing traffic accidents?
laughs Self-consciousness is not for the mass market. It's for the early adopters who try new things, who think it's cool to be different.