"Come to me!"
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.
"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.