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Ginger, the most famous scooter of the century

Yesterday, American inventor Dean Kamen presented his project Ginger to the public. Ginger, alternatively also simply called IT, was considered for months as the rough mystery of the Hi Tech industry. Now we know: Ginger is an electrically powered scooter.

It looks pretty funny, how a mechanical lawnmower. It’s called Segway and will cost around 3000 dollars. It travels at a speed of about 20 kilometers per hour. It feels like a pair of magic sneakers, says its inventor Dean Kamen. So it actually sounds quite interesting.

Still, there was probably a disappointed viewer or two when Kamen presented his latest invention on U.S. television yesterday. Because it alais ES aka IT aka Ginger aka Segway had been announced and hyped as the hot new thing earlier this year. Nobody knew what it was, but everybody wanted to have it. After all, it was supposed to change the world. Or, alternatively, the foundations of the city building were shaking. And it had an insane amount of influential friends.

"More important than the World Wide Web"

Like John Doerr. He never thought he’d see another development as significant as the World Wide Web in his lifetime, the well-known venture capitalist said. At least not until he saw IT. Afterwards, Doerr was convinced: It will change the world. When Doerr announced this to the public, hardly anything was known about the mysterious device. The only thing that was certain was that it had been invented by a certain Dean Kamen. Kamen had previously made a name for himself with things like the stair-climbing wheelchair and the mobile blood glucose meter. Not exactly things that make you think of Hi Tech and Silicon Valley. But it soon became known that he had dropped in on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Steven Jobs with his invention. Both were spontaneously enthusiastic. The Macintosh guru said after the meeting that Ginger speaks for himself. Those who have seen it, do not need to be convinced anymore. Jobs and Bezos spontaneously agreed to act as advisors to Kamen. And Doerr, who has already helped Netscape, Amazon and Excite get on their feet, was struggling with the financing together with Xerox boss Paul Allaire. Allaire expected Ginger to make more money in a year than any startup has ever made. Ginger inventor Kamen will be richer than Bill Gates in five years as a result.

Who the hell is Warren Beatty?

Dean Kamen is something like the prototype of the American nerd. He was bad at school because it bored him. Why should he also learn things that everyone else already knew anyway? No wonder he couldn’t last long in college with that attitude either. Instead of studying, he developed portable devices for diabetics, which made him a millionaire at the age of 25. Now 50, Kamen is a multimillionaire, the recipient of America’s highest scientific award, and completely obsessed with his work. Some people would certainly call him unworldly. When he was once invited to a dinner at the White House, he was reportedly seated next to two people he had never heard of: Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine.

He once told a team from the CBS television station that if someone thought he was crazy, it was a gross compliment for him. It’s possible that Kamen gets compliments from his neighbors all the time: according to media reports, the first thing you see when you enter his house is a huge, 150-year-old steam engine. And to get to work, the eccentric inventor uses one of his two helicopters. Good, others are doing the same. But others do not buy the manufacturer of the helicopters first to optimize the construction of the devices.

Kamen did not want to say anything about Ginger for months. Initially, he said that the invention might have a significant impact on some of the giants of the old economy. Then, apparently, he feared that they could throw a spanner in the works and preferred to keep his head down. All the hype about Ginger is a bit exaggerated, Kamen told journalists.

A projector, a shower drive, a scooter?

But the net community does not like to be distracted by it. After the meanwhile discontinued online magazine Inside.com were first reported in January "IT Files" the topic became the hottest topic on the net in a very short time. Slashdot was flooded with postings, fan sites like Theitquestion.com attracted millions of surfers in a few days. For a short time, Ginger even made it into the top 10 Lycos search terms. Eager surfers searched the databases of patent offices and found an application for a kind of motorized scooter even then. The greatest invention since the World Wide Web – a scooter?

Not everyone wanted to accept this at the time. Critics of the roller theory argued that Kamen might not have applied for a patent for Ginger for reasons of secrecy. Moreover, this was only one theory among many. IT was traded as an abbreviation for Individual Transport, but also for Interdimension Technology – a theory that was especially popular among Star Trek fans. Others saw in Ginger a kind of skateboard with Transrapid propulsion, a mini hovercraft, a wheelchair with propellers, a miniature helicopter or even a rocket engine that can be strapped on.

Hype over control?

Among the few people who got a look at the device months ago was Steve Kemper. The science journalist has been watching Kamen for a year and a half and has written a book about Ginger. An American scientific publisher paid him a $250,000 advance – without knowing what the book was about. Because Kemper also kept quiet, but in his own way.

His book announcement, written for the publisher, is said to have been full of innuendos and full-bodied promises that made the publishers’ mouths water. When the contract was signed, someone loved the paper Inside.com, and the hype took its course. Kemper must have laughed his head off at the publicity, but Kamen wasn’t so fond of it. He explained that the book announcement rubbed quotes out of context and was full of exaggerations. So is the ginger hype not much more than a clever marketing stunt for a book, backed by a few feisty corporate execs, that has gotten completely out of hand on the net?

Kamen is not fazed by the now rampant de-swapping. Segway is to cars what cars were to horse-drawn carriages, he dictated into the microphone to the press yesterday. Time Magazine even says that Kamen has reinvented the wheel once again. The Time reporter was particularly impressed by the machine’s fine sensors. These make it possible, for example, to brake simply by thinking about braking – the subtle body reactions to the thought are enough to bring Segway to a standstill.

Dean Kamen is therefore still convinced that everyone will want to buy Segway as soon as they have tried it out. But it will take a while until this can be tested in practice. Some companies plan to test the first prototypes in the next few months, but the device will not be available to end users for another year. Maybe then the hype will really start.

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