On a quiet Sunday morning in Silicon Valley, I am standing atop a machine code-named Ginger a machine that may be the most eagerly awaited and wildly, if inadvertently, hyped high-tech product since the Apple Macintosh. Fifty feet away, Ginger's diminutive inventor, Dean Kamen, is offering instruction on how to use it, which in this case means waving his hands and barking out orders.
COST: About $8,000 for industrial models; consumer versions may cost $3,000.
MAXIMUM SPEED: 5 m.p.h. to 17 m.p.h., depending on settings
RANGE: About 17 miles per battery charge on level ground; decelerating or going downhill generates electricity, extending its range
RECHARGE TIME: One hour of charge for two hours of operation
PAYLOAD: Passenger 250 lbs. Cargo 75 lbs.
WEIGHT: 65 or 80 lbs., depending on the model
"Just lean forward," Kamen commands, so I do, and instantly I start rolling across the concrete right at him.
"Now, stop," Kamen says. How? This thing has no brakes. "Just think about stopping." Staring into the middle distance, I conjure an image of a red stop sign--and just like that, Ginger and I come to a halt.
"Now think about backing up." Once again, I follow instructions, and soon I glide in reverse to where I started. With a twist of the wrist, I pirouette in place, and no matter which way I lean or how hard, Ginger refuses to let me fall over. What's going on here is all perfectly explicable--the machine is sensing and reacting to subtle shifts in my balance--but for the moment I am slack-jawed, baffled. It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously observed that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." By that standard, Ginger is advanced indeed.
Since last January it has also been the tech world's most-speculated-about secret. That was when a book proposal about Ginger, a.k.a. "IT," got leaked to the website Inside.com. Kamen had been working on Ginger for more than a decade, and although the author (with whom the inventor is no longer collaborating) never revealed what Ginger was, his precis included over-the-top assessments from some of Silicon Valley's mightiest kingpins. As big a deal as the PC, said Steve Jobs; maybe bigger than the Internet, said John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape, Amazon.com and now Ginger.
In a heartbeat, hundreds of stories full of fevered theorizing gushed forth in the press. Ginger was a hydrogen-powered hovercraft. Or a magnetic antigravity device. Or, closer to the mark, a souped-up scooter. Even the reprobates at South Park got into the act, spoofing Ginger in a recent episode--the details of which, sadly, are unprintable in a family magazine.
This week the guessing game comes to an end as Kamen unveils his baby under its official name: Segway. Given the buildup, some are bound to be disappointed. ("It won't beam you to Mars or turn lead into gold," shrugs Kamen. "So sue me.") But there is no denying that the Segway is an engineering marvel. Developed at a cost of more than $100 million, Kamen's vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human body's ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity.
The commercial ambitions of Kamen and his team are as advanced as their technical virtuosity. By stealing a slice of the $300 billion-plus transportation industry, Doerr predicts, the Segway Co. will be the fastest outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales. To get there, the firm has erected a 77,000-sq.-ft. factory a few miles from its Manchester, N.H., headquarters that will be capable of churning out 40,000 Segways a month by the end of next year.
Kamen's aspirations are even grander than that. He believes the Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." He imagines them everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on battlefields and factory floors, but especially on downtown sidewalks from Seattle to Shanghai. "Cars are great for going long distances," Kamen says, "but it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb. asses around town." In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from urban centers to make room for millions of "empowered pedestrians"--empowered, naturally, by Kamen's brainchild.
Kamen's dream of a Segway-saturated world won't come true overnight. In fact, ordinary folks won't be able to buy the machines for at least a year, when a consumer model is expected to go on sale for about $3,000. For now, the first customers to test the Segway will be deep-pocketed institutions such as the U.S. Postal Service and General Electric, the National Parks Service and Amazon.com--institutions capable of shelling out about $8,000 apiece for industrial-strength models. And Kamen's dreamworld won't arrive at all unless he and his team can navigate the array of obstacles that are sure to be thrown up by competitors and ever cautious regulators.
For the past three months, Kamen has allowed TIME behind the veil of secrecy as he and his team grappled with the questions that they will confront--about everything from safety and pricing to the challenges of launching a product with the country at war and the economy in recession. Some of their answers were smooth and assured; others less polished. But one thing was clear. As Kamen sees it, all these issues will quickly fade if the question most people ask about the Segway is "How do I get one?"