Kamen island

The film is animated in black and white. The scene is an empty room, save for an upright scooter driven by a young woman. We’ll call her Ginger.

After a few perfunctory shakes, the scooter rises off the ground and flies in a circle, the wind rushing through Ginger’s hair. Once she’s back in the center of the room, however, there appears to be a problem and the device starts shaking again. It blows up, sending pieces of the woman’s body flying across the room (it is a cartoon, where we are allowed to laugh at dismemberment). Aliens then come scurrying in from all sides, eager to inspect the damage.

This clip was posted on the humour site Idleworm well before inventor Dean Kamen officially unveiled his human transport device, Segway, on Monday. That the animators came up with something that looks remarkably like Segway shows how difficult it has been for Kamen to keep the project (which has also been called “IT” and “Ginger”) under wraps. On the other hand, this is all part of the fun. It’s the same technique the late director Stanley Kubrick used to create interest in Eyes Wide Shut, or the way Michael Jackson’s “You Rock My World” single was “leaked” to radio stations a few weeks before his new album hit stores. Buzz is not hard to generate when you’re Kubrick, Jacko or even Kamen. The public is very good at using their imaginations to fill in the blanks before a product is released. The hard part comes later, when the suspense is over and the reality fails to measure up to the fantasy.

Kamen, best known for inventing a portable dialysis machine, is dealing with this now. Time Magazine was given the exclusive on Segway, a self-balancing two-wheeler that uses gyroscopes and computers in an effort to reduce automobile congestion in crowded urban areas. Kamen spent Monday morning showing off a sample on Good Morning America, a perfect time slot where he could appeal to people dreading their daily commute.

In chat rooms like ReadAllAboutIT.com and theITquestion.com, a digital peanut gallery full of onlookers is already throwing their darts and laurels. “IT’s a disappointmeNT!” one blasts. “I thought that Dean Kamen was more incredible (than) this.” Though the first commercial Segways will probably not be available until sometime next year, the flaws are already being trotted out. Foul weather is an obvious problem — who is going to hop on the scooter in a downpour, a snowstorm or in a heat wave? A bigger issue might be zoning laws that could prohibit use of the Segway on roads or sidewalks. As a pedestrian who spends a lot of time walking the streets of downtown Toronto, I loathe razor-scooters, which became wildly popular about a year ago. When a scooter-rider came whizzing inches past me the other night, I was certainly not hoping that a more sophisticated version would one day replace them. Though the Segway has apparently been designed to prevent people from falling off, there seems little to prevent non-Segway users from being run over.

Though it is obviously well evolved from a razor-scooter, the idea of Segway reminded me of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which explores how social epidemics begin and spread. Gladwell deconstructed the popularity of Sesame Steet, the novel Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and a crime drop in New York City several years ago. He offers three distinct personality profiles – Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen — as the agents of change who push things to the tipping point where they become a mainstream phenomenon. While he was promoting the book last year Gladwell was frequently asked to predict the next big thing, but they were already on the horizon. Beanie Babies. Reality television. Razor-scooters.

Timing is everything, and it’s possible Kamen may be too late to take advantage of the scooter craze. But products that trigger substantial changes — like cars or airplanes — outlast the Zeitgeist and are almost always panned before they succeed. They don’t usually force us to shift course completely; they offer a segue-way.

The dark side of the connected society is that it offers so many forums to put new ideas down. As one writer posted on theITquestion.com:

“Some people are sending a great message to inventors and innovators . . . ‘Don’t invent anything unless it not only performs a good function but while doing so it must completely break ALL conventions and resemble nothing that came before it.’ Yep, we’re gonna move ahead for sure now.”

I’m as skeptical as anyone, but I admire ingenuity enough to give the Segway an opportunity to debut before I dismiss its chances. Kamen is what Gladwell would call a salesman, and like a high-tech Evil Knievel he will be riding Segway with determination these next few months, trying to tip over as far as possible without falling flat on his face.

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Shane Schick
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