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Is There an ‘It’ in Your Future?

Eric J. Plosky

After a year of hype, It could have been anything from a perpetual-motion machine to an Orgasmatron. But when inventor Dean Kamen whisked Its wraps off last week on “Good Morning America,” It was revealed to be a scooter.

A scooter?

Kamen, an Edison-like figure who has invented medical gadgets and a stair-climbing wheelchair dubbed “Fred,” isn’t a showman or media smoothie. He’s a geek who has come up with a new toy. While zipping around on an It -- sorry, on a Segway Human Transporter -- during the “GMA” segment, Kamen couldn’t help beaming. The bottom line: he thinks that It’s all that.

Also known as “Ginger” (Fred’s partner), Kamen’s scooter -- er, Segway Human Transporter -- is essentially a two-wheeled device which a rider stands on and scoots about. Flat-out, It can do about 12 miles an hour for about 12 miles. It’s small, easy and safe to ride, and uses little electricity. The Postal Service, the National Park Service, and some big corporations are already fiddling with early industrial-strength Its; the consumer model will hit stores next year with a tag of about $3,000.

The only big question now is, will It change the world? Early sneak-peekers, such as Intel’s Andy Grove and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, seemed to think so. Apple’s Steve Jobs even opined that future cities would be designed around It. Kamen himself seems to have a Grand Vision of It in which commuters dash about cities, transit stations, and airports, warehouse workers flit between buildings, and delivery people It up and down the block, everyone saving hours in the process. Curiously, It seems intended to replace neither cars nor bicycles -- It’s being touted, rather unusually, as an alternative to walking. Kamen and Co. say It’s designed for use on sidewalks, not on streets. Indeed, It has been certified by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration as something akin to a wheelchair. Imagine the sidewalks filling up with It riders hurtling past at 12 mph. Wouldn’t that change the urban landscape?

“It’s a very clever, stylish and attractive little gadget, and it’s likely to find a useful niche in urban transportation,” I was told last week by William J. Mitchell, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, author of City of Bits and e-topia. “However, major changes in transportation modes and patterns depend at least as much on effective strategies for creating necessary infrastructure on a large scale (with the automobile, for example, parking lots, freeways, gas stations, etc.) as they do on availability of new types of vehicles. It isn’t clear to me that there’s a way to put the infrastructure for this vehicle in place on a sufficient scale, at a sufficiently rapid pace, for it to have a significant impact in the near-term future. That’s the big challenge.”

That seemed to make sense, so I checked in with Cambridge City Councilor Henrietta Davis, who is usually at the forefront of municipal transportation issues. Would early-adopter geeks in Cambridge soon be clogging the sidewalks with Its? “I love the idea” of It, Davis said, but a “big problem is that it doesn’t sound compatible with urban sidewalks. We already ban bicycles and don’t want motorized vehicles on the sidewalk. Is there a solution? Sounds like it may work better in the suburbs where the sidewalks aren’t so crowded.”

But if we’re going to try to get suburbanites out of their cars, shouldn’t we really try to get them to exercise instead, by walking or bicycling? Some experts predict that in a few years, half of the American adult population could be classified clinically obese; surely the car-dependent suburban architecture of the U.S. is one cause of this great fattening. And if you won’t burn any more calories standing on an It than sitting in a Ford Executioner, well, sure, particulate emissions may go down, but cholesterol levels will still be climbing.

I suspect that It will be more successful among its commercial and industrial customers: letter and package carriers, park rangers, factory workers, and that sort. Eventually the military will start fiddling with Its, and one can easily imagine a brigade of troops rolling at 12 mph into battle. “Not the It-mounted infantry!” our enemies will shriek. Ultimately, on finding a niche in commerce or industry, It may turn out to be one of those innovations largely invisible to the consumer, like the wastewater treatment plant or or the fiber-optic cable -- we won’t each have to deal with It on a daily basis, but we’ll all still be better off.

In any case, Kamen and his cronies, despite the release of It, still seem to be tinkering. There is buzz about a Stirling engine-powered It, a thought that no doubt sets Course 2 hearts afire. If Kamen has figured out how to work with a Stirling, maybe It could be more than we now realize. He probably hasn’t registered domain names like for nothing.

Still, I agree with Dean Mitchell -- even in current form, It is a pretty cool gadget. And regardless of Its impracticalities, I’m right with Councilor Davis when she asks, “When can we try one out?”