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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."
Pulling off this trick requires an unholy amount of computer power. In every Segway there are 10 microprocessors cranking out three PCs' worth of juice. Also a cluster of aviation-grade gyros, an accelerometer, a bevy of sensors, two batteries and software so sophisticated it puts Microsoft to shame. If Kamen gets irked when the IBOT is called a wheelchair, imagine his pique when--if--the Segway is called a scooter.
FISH AND BICYCLES
The possibility that the segway will be viewed as simply a high-end toy, a jet ski on wheels, is one of Kamen's greatest concerns, especially after Sept. 11. He wants his machine taken seriously, as a serious solution to serious problems. That anxiety was one of the reasons he and his team decided to concentrate at first on major corporations, universities and government agencies--large, solid, established institutions--rather than dive straight into the consumer marketplace.
Whether such institutions would embrace Segways, however, was an open question. Before last January's leak, Kamen had demoed his invention only when absolutely necessary, or for luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. After the leak, he became even pickier. He entertained the Postmaster General, who was keen to put letter carriers on Segways, and the head of the National Parks Service, who wanted to do the same with park rangers and police. (Both are among Segway's first customers.) Kamen also stirred up interest at the Department of Defense, which was intrigued by the notion of giving Segways to special forces, and at Federal Express. But few other potential customers were allowed to pass through DEKA's tightly sealed doors.
A few weeks ago, with the launch approaching, Kamen began to let some others in. The Boston police department sent a clutch of cops to Manchester. The city of Atlanta sent a contingent of city planners. And Thanksgiving week, Kamen took his act to California. In one jam-packed day in Silicon Valley, he revealed the Segway to officials from San Francisco International Airport, the California department of transportation, the city of Palo Alto, Stanford University and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers. Especially gratifying to Kamen was the reaction of Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel and, unlike so many Silicon Valley boosters, a bone-deep skeptic. Perched tentatively on the machine, the 65-year-old Grove was rolling slowly along when Doerr ambled over and pushed him in the chest. When the Segway kept him from losing his balance, Grove emitted a distinctly un-Grove-like giggle. "The machine is gorgeous," he said later. "I'm no good at balancing; it would take me a hundred years to learn to snowboard. This took me less than five minutes."