By Dom Cioffi
I first started hearing about the product with the code name of “Ginger” in the early months of 2001. Secretive press releases called it a “paradigm shift in the way humans will live” and “the next big thing.”
I craved any and all information about this mysterious device, but little was available. And no matter how much I tried to discover what this new life-changing invention was, I couldn’t find an answer; plenty of speculation, but no answer.
“Ginger” was a true mystery.
The one thing I did discover was that this new creation was from the mind of Dean Kamen, a genius of sorts who had previously invented a stair climbing wheelchair and various medical devices.
Some people speculated that it was a new form of energy while others boasted that it would be more important than the Internet. And just to sweeten the allure, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs predicted that “cities would be redesigned around the device” and that it would be even more significant than the personal computer.
I, along with others keyed into the tech world, was giddy with anticipation.
Finally the day came for the grand unveiling, which occurred on an episode of “Good Morning America.” I was one of the individuals who missed work that morning because I simply had to see the event live. I wanted to be one of the first people to know how dramatically my life was about to change.
I sat glued to my television like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. Kamen eventually came out and after a short build-up unveiled… the Segway.
Yes, sir. A personal transporter with some advanced technology that made it balance with little effort from the operator. In other words: it was a fancy scooter.
Kamen claimed that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”
My initial reaction was, “Huh, really? Life changing? Bigger than the Internet?”
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed, but I really wanted to be. I mean, some of the biggest names in technology were on board. I tried to picture myself owning one; I tried to imagine why I would need one. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t see the Segway and me hanging together.
To say that I felt let down by Dean Kamen would have been an understatement. I wanted something really important, a true paradigm shift in the evolution of humanity. Instead, I got a mobile podium for people who think walking is too much trouble.
My gut told me over and over again that the Segway was a niche product destined for a niche marketplace.
At $5,000 a pop, the Segway was forecasted to sell between 50,000 to 100,000 units in its first 13 months. Unfortunately, only about 30,000 Segways were sold between ‘01 and ‘07.
Kamen eventually sold his company and moved on to other inventions. And in an ill-fated twist that almost seems to crazy to be true, the new owner of the Segway Corporation was killed when he accidentally rode his own personal transporter off the edge of a cliff.
I sort of forgot about the Segway for several years, occasionally seeing one on the odd police patrol in a large city. And then, while visiting Disney World several years ago, I had the opportunity to actually test drive one.
I stood in line for nearly and hour and when it was my turn, I hopped aboard and navigated the device around several obstacles while an employee made sure I didn’t tumble.
Admittedly, the balancing technology was very unique and the movement of the device was incredibly intuitive. However, there was still no way I was going to be “that guy.”
By this point, former President George Bush had taken a major tumble on one and Kevin James had immortalized the device via his Mall Cop character, Paul Blart. It was a company’s marketing nightmare come true: the Segway just wasn’t cool.
Maybe the day will come when cars will have to be outlawed and bicycles will go out of fashion. But until that day arrives, I don’t see the general public making a major shift toward the personal transporter, especially when its geek factor is so high.
In this week’s feature, “Chappie,” another new technology is unveiled to the world with similar claims of evolutionary upheaval. This time it’s a robot with a conscience.
“Chappie” is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the man who captured the public’s attention several years ago with this release of “District 9.” This time he sets his sights on the field of robotics and what might occur if robots become too powerful in society.
I had high expectations for this film since I found “District 9” to be such a great example of a thinking man’s science fiction movie. Unfortunately, “Chappie” fell well short in terms of story and execution.
Check this out if you’re a fan of the director’s earlier works or are simply in the mood for some foreign-feeling science fiction.
An unrealized “C+” for “Chappie.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]