Technology is on a roll, or maybe it's running wild

March 27, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

NEEDING A break from all the dreary war coverage, I went for a test spin on a Segway Human Transporter the other day and managed to navigate it through the carpeted hallways of a downtown hotel without plowing into anyone.

Oh, there was a concierge who almost got it, and one time a busboy played it a little too casual as he walked past with a tray of drinks. But other than that, things went fine, and I was not asked to leave by hotel security, which is always a good thing.

The Segway HT is a two-wheeled, battery-powered scooter introduced back in 2001 by the famous inventor Dean Kamen to much fanfare in the high-tech world.

It was billed as "world-altering technology" and one of the most important inventions in history - which I don't see at all. But that's getting ahead of things.

To try out the Segway, I went down to the Inner Harbor Marriott, where new owners were taking a 90-minute training session before taking delivery of their $4,950 devices.

Morgan Smith, a brand manager for Segway, was my instructor. She said the Segway weighs 83 pounds, runs on nickel-metal hydride batteries and is recommended for use on sidewalks.

It's a great "short-distance travel solution," she said. "Like in an urban situation where you could commute to work."

Smith said she lives in Manchester, N.H., where Segway LLC corporate headquarters is located, and often uses her Segway to commute to and from work.

Then she mentioned using it in Manhattan, but the Segway people are dreaming if they think that'll ever happen.

I worked in Manhattan for years, and the sidewalks are simply too crowded for anything like this.

Plus if some weirdo on a scooter ever bumped into pedestrians on a Manhattan sidewalk, they'd beat him to death and hang his body from the awning of the nearest Starbucks.

The other thing is this: The Segway does fine descending your standard four-inch curb, such as you'd find at a busy intersection. But it won't go up a curb.

You have to get off the thing and drag it up onto the sidewalk, which could get a little dicey on the streets of New York, where a crazed cab driver is usually taking a corner on two wheels while eating a slice of pizza and talking on his cell phone.

Smith then demonstrated how the Segway worked in one of the hotel's ballrooms.

When you stand on it, a gyroscope and tilt sensors monitor a user's center of gravity. Lean forward, and the Segway moves forward. Lean back, and it goes in reverse. There's no throttle or brake. A knob on the left handlebar steers it right or left and allows you to turn in place, like a Baryshnikov on wheels.

The model we tested had a top speed of 6 mph - the fastest one only does 12, so these things are not exactly dragsters - and Smith guided it gracefully through a series of orange cones to demonstrate its maneuverability.

When I asked if the Segway could do a "hard stop" - I tend to lapse into that kind of lingo on these occasions - Smith got up a good head of speed and headed straight for me before grabbing the handlebars, leaning back and coming to a quick stop.

When it was my turn on the Segway, I found it easy to use, and fun, too.

It takes a minute or two to get used to the rocking motion as you and the device get to know each other. But after that, I was buzzing down the hallways with ease, ready to pick off the odd conventioneer or tourist who got in the way.

Right now, said Smith, 33 states, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, allow the use of Segways. (New York doesn't, by the way, so they won't be causing any riots in Manhattan just yet.)

It's hard to tell how many people have bought the devices; the company does not release sales figures. But Smith said about 60 people from the Greater Baltimore area were attending the training sessions at the Marriott that day.

Critics of Segway say this is just what America needs, something else to keep people from walking, something else to aid in the creation of future generations of couch-potato, fast-food-gorging fatsos.

But Smith said: "We do not see this as replacing walking ... this is to help people be more productive."

In fact, she said, the Segway was first introduced for commercial customers, and postal workers, factory workers, paramedics and police officers are just some of the people who have used the device in their work.

At this point in the conversation, we heard a large crash in one of the ballrooms.

When we peeked in, we saw that a woman in one of the training sessions had crashed her Segway into a wall and fallen onto the floor, her training helmet askew.

"OK, let's not stare at her," Smith said as we backed away from the door.

This, of course, was just what the Segway people needed: an accident on one of their devices with media vultures all around.

But the woman who crashed appeared to be OK.

For an instant, I thought of returning to Smith and saying: "Gee, I think they're putting that woman on a neck board."

But that kind of thing is rarely appreciated in these situations, and so I said nothing.

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