It's been almost a year since Dean Kamen revealed the Segway-HT (Segway Human Transporter - aka Ginger or IT) on Good Morning America. My wife Azeeza and I were there that morning, as well as a few other online friends who had been following the "Ginger" hype leading up to the unveiling. We stood on stage, next to Dean's parents, and could see what the rest of the world hadn't seen yet - the Segway, looking sleek yet rugged and hidden from the camera's view behind a secretive white veil. But that was as close as we ever really got to "IT." That is, until now.
A very thoughtful person provided us with an opportunity to ride a couple of I-Series "consumer version" Segways, allowing us to try them out for as long as we wanted.
Upon arriving, we found two I-Series Segways all charged up and ready to go. The weather was great so we decided to play outside. The Segways were put into "follow me" mode and we rolled them down a few stairs and onto a driveway.
I found the "follow me" mode to work fairly well and to be somewhat of a necessity. At 83lbs, the I-series isn't exactly lightweight so don't expect to carry one in a duffel bag slung over your shoulder. Although heavy, there are apparent advantages to its weight. For example, the Segway seems to "hug" the ground as if its wheels were magnets and sidewalks were made of iron.
My wife was the first to hop on board. Putting up with me for the last two years, she really earned it! One hand on the right handle, then the right foot to the platform, then step up and grab the left handle. Stand up straight and that's all there is to it. Initially, she wobbled back and forth a bit - feeling a bit unsteady. Her own sense of balance was in competition with the machine's.
When she finally figured out what was going on, her mind instantly and almost magically plugged into the control loop. She was ready to start "thinking forward and back", as we've often heard. In actuality, she responded better to "lean forward" and "lean back" - shifting her weight to her toes and heals. Getting the platform to lean forward and back is really what controls your fore/aft motion.
After a few moments of practicing going forward and back, it was time to learn how to spin. On the left handle bar, there is a twisting control grip. It's an analog control and sensitive to the degree of the twist. Twist to the left and you begin to turn left. Twist harder and you spin faster. It's a very responsive controller and quite useful when you need to make subtle steering adjustments while riding.
And she was off. My wife, afraid of everything in this world including cute puppies and some stuffed animals, was gliding along at her own pace - seemingly floating over the ground, looking gracious, beautiful and yet surreal - all at the same time. She smiled the whole while and I later learned that she'd become absolutely "hooked" on the machine, wanting one more than anything else on her wish list. And believe me, that's quite a list she keeps!
It was my turn to "plug in" and give it a spin. Over the last year I'd given a lot of thought to what riding a Segway might feel like. I may of thought about it too much because when I finally set foot aboard the Segway, it wasn't exactly what I expected. Prior to riding, I had imagined that I knew how to relinquish balance control over to the machine. However, I learned that I didn't really have a sense of "how" to do it because I'd never experienced anything quite like that before. Your mind quickly learns though as there is this sort of magical moment between you and the machine. You let go.
Once your mind "plugs in", you're ready to ride. It took me less than a minute to get the hang of it. There were two things that I had a problem with initially: Getting used to the turning controls and remembering not to lean back too much. As to the first, twisting left and right to turn is something I needed to get used to. I think that if people have problems steering Segways initially, it'll be because of the control grip. However, after some experience and riding time - it's a non-issue.
As to the second problem, after braking I had a tendency to keep leaning back, only to be alerted by a stick shake that I shouldn't be traveling backwards so fast. And if you think about it, that makes sense. If you need to travel backwards at more than 3mph for more than a few seconds, you really should just turn around and go forward in that same direction.
I was able to ride the Segway using all key-color modes. The performance characteristics are encoded into each key. They define your maximum speed and turn radius, for example. On the slow key, the Segway isn't as "responsive" to subtle leaning and turning controls. This is the ideal mode for a "beginner" as it allows you to get used to the machine.
Things really get exciting on the fast key. In that mode, the Segway is totally responsive to your every whim. It's as much as part of you as your shoes are. You get a sense that you're glued to the ground and the feeling of stability is unprecedented. I've ridden in-line scooters and bikes, and I've no point of reference. Imagine you had the ability to hover above the ground and your will controlled your movement. That's pretty much what it feels like.
Not knowing when I'd have another opportunity for exclusive access to a Segway-HT, I decided to try all sorts of maneuvers. No matter what I tried, I learned something I had suspected but didn't really know for sure. Riding a Segway-HT is as safe as you want to be, meaning that in order to get hurt or do something dangerous, you have to try really hard.
I tried going really fast and spinning - no problem. The turning radius decreases as your speed increases. I couldn't spin off the Segway-HT or turn it off balance.
I tried crashing into someone and was stopped by an outreached hand pushing against the top of the handle bar.
Going as fast as I could, I then tested out the breaking ability. My sense of it was that the stopping distance was very short and I didn't feel unbalanced. I simply leaned and pulled back on the handle bar. No problem there.
I tried riding fast over uneven surfaces. You could feel the terrain as your rode over it, but I learned that bending my knees slightly and going with the flow made it easy.
I tried riding with no hands. Simple leaning forward and back, I was able to control the Segway-HT without any difficulty. However, in order to turn, I did have to reach for the twisting grip, make a course correction and then go hands free again. If I had a wireless steering controller, I think I could ride the platform like a surf board - hands free.
I found it difficult, if not impossible, to put myself into harms way. I credit the inherent safety of the Segway-HT and the little bit of my brain that prevents me from hurting myself. I've often said that everything is dangerous when you're stupid. Careful and thoughtful people are not going to hurt themselves or others on this machine. While not completely "fool-proof", it's the closest thing, on wheels, that I've ever seen.
When the Segway-HT was finally revealed to the world on Dec. 3, 2001 on Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer asked - "Is that it?" Some people are still asking that question almost a year later.
What do I think now?
No, that's not "IT" - but it was part of "IT" for sure. On the morning of the reveal, there was a common theme that reverberated from the mouths of Dean Kamen and his engineers - a theme which I didn't really "get" at the time. However, now that I've had about a year to sleep on it and a chance to finally ride a Segway-HT for myself, I think I "get it" now. This invention isn't THE answer. It's part of a response. It's a practical solution to a real world problem - short distance transportation.
Do we need it? Well, I don't know if you need it. I don't know what percentage of Americans actually need it. But I could use it. I know other people that could use it. And that's really the big idea here. If enough people actually use it, the natural consequence to all this Segway use will be visible and noticeable declines of street congestion, air and noise pollution - increases in personal productivity and community - well - "communalness."
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