Reinventing the Wheel

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Dean's Machine: Will cities allow it to share the sidewalk with pedestrians?

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Fred and Ginger
The world of technology has never been short of eccentrics and obsessives, of rich, brilliant oddballs with strange habits and stranger hobbies. But even in this crowd, Dean Kamen stands out. The 50-year-old son of a comic-book artist, he is a college dropout, a self-taught physicist and mechanical engineer with a handful of honorary doctorates, a multimillionaire who wears the same outfit for every occasion: blue jeans, a blue work shirt and a pair of Timberland boots. With the accent of his native Long Island, he speaks slowly, passionately--and endlessly. "If you ask Dean the time," Doerr chides, "he'll first explain the theory of general relativity, then how to build an atomic clock, and then, maybe, he'll tell you what time it is."

A bachelor, Kamen lives near Manchester in a hexagonally shaped, 32,000-sq.-ft. house he designed. Outside, there's a giant wind turbine to generate power and a fully lighted baseball diamond; in the basement, a foundry and a machine shop. Kamen's vehicles include a Hummer, a Porsche and two helicopters--both of which he helped design and one of which he uses to commute to work each day. He also owns an island off the coast of Connecticut. He calls it North Dumpling, and he considers it a sovereign state. It has a flag, a navy, a currency (one bill has the value of pi) and a mutual nonaggression pact with the U.S., signed by Kamen and the first President Bush (as a joke, we think).

But if Kamen's personality is half Willy Wonka, the other half is closer to Thomas Edison. While he was still struggling in college, Kamen invented the first drug-infusion pump, which enabled doctors to deliver steady, reliable doses to patients. In the years that followed, he invented the first portable insulin pump, the first portable dialysis machine and an array of heart stents, one of which now resides inside Vice President Dick Cheney. This string of successes established Kamen's reputation, made him wealthy and turned DEKA Research--the R.-and-D. lab he founded nearly 20 years ago, in which he and 200 engineers work along the banks of the Merrimack River--into a kind of Mecca for medical-device design.

The seeds of Ginger were planted at DEKA by what had previously been Kamen's best-known project: the IBOT wheelchair. Developed for and funded by Johnson & Johnson, the IBOT is Kamen's bid to "give the disabled the same kind of mobility the rest of us take for granted"--a six-wheel machine that goes up and down curbs, cruises effortlessly through sand or gravel, and even climbs stairs. More amazing still, the IBOT features something called standing mode, in which it rises up on its wheels and lifts its occupant to eye level while maintaining balance with such stability that it can't be knocked over even by a violent shove. Kamen gets annoyed when the IBOT is called a wheelchair. It is, he says, "the world's most sophisticated robot."

As Kamen and his team were working on the IBOT, it dawned on them that they were onto something bigger. "We realized we could build a device using very similar technology that could impact how everybody gets around," he says. The IBot was also the source of Ginger's mysterious code name. "Watching the IBOT, we used to say, 'Look at that light, graceful robot, dancing up the stairs'--so we started referring to it as Fred Upstairs, after Fred Astaire," Kamen recalls. "After we built Fred, it was only natural to name its smaller partner Ginger."

With Ginger, as with the IBOT, Kamen explains, "the big idea is to put a human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of your body." On first inspection, balancing on Ginger seems only slightly more feasible than balancing on a barbell. But what Kamen is talking about is the way Ginger does the balancing for you. Lean forward, go forward; lean back, go back; turn by twisting your wrist. The experience is the same going uphill, downhill or across any kind of terrain — even ice. It is nothing like riding a bike or a motorcycle. Instead, in the words of Vern Loucks, the former chairman of Baxter International and a Segway board member, "it's like skiing without the snow."

Exactly how the Segway achieves this effect isn't easy to explain; Kamen's first stab at it involves a blizzard of equations. Eventually, though, he offers this: "When you walk, you're really in what's called a controlled fall. You off-balance yourself, putting one foot in front of the other and falling onto them over and over again. In the same way, when you use a Segway, there's a gyroscope that acts like your inner ear, a computer that acts like your brain, motors that act like your muscles, wheels that act like your feet. Suddenly, you feel like you have on a pair of magic sneakers, and instead of falling forward, you go sailing across the room."

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