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Thoughts about the Segway HT: Why it's not just a scooter
You should look closely at disruptive technologies, and not just dismiss them out of hand.
There has been a lot written recently about the new Segway HT that's being publicized by developer Dean Kamen. Much of what I've read has been relatively shallow, focusing on the disappointment of the writer and explaining why it's not such a big deal. I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised, and while I anticipated that it would be a scooter-like device, I found more to it than I expected. This essay explores some of my feelings.
I am writing this before I have actually gotten to try a Segway. I have been reading a lot of what has been written about it (such as the articles pointed to on segway.weblogs.com, and the Segway web site), watched people learning to use it on TV, and have spoken to someone who was associated with the project. After I actually use one, and can see if it lives up to my feelings on close examination, I'll add to this. [Postscript: I got to ride one in April 2002. See "Impressions after riding a Segway HT". Also, see "Segways in Atlanta" from February 2003.]
Make sure you understand disruptive technologies. Their first incarnations often seem like toys compared to existing technologies. The classic text to read is The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen (Amazon link). The Segway embodies lots of disruptive technologies. I'm pretty familiar with a previous disruptive technology: The combination of electronic spreadsheet and the personal computer. The combination was first viewed as a toy compared to "real" computers and financial forecasting tools. It only sold about 10,000 copies in the first 10 months, and was barely mentioned in the business press for a couple of years. Twenty years later, using Excel and doing "spreadsheeting math" is taught in elementary and junior high school. With disruptive technologies, there is an element of time frame. That's why patent protection is often appropriate, with its 20 year help. Technologies that change the world don't usually do it overnight.
The Segway is fun. It is most commonly compared to skiing, a sport where people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars or more for a set of equipment and $1,000 for a season pass. (See what Dave Winer had to say when he tried one.) Fun is important to the adoption of new technology. Never underestimate its importance. People are more likely to find uses for things they like.
The Segway lets you be social. The success of many technologies is tied to how they fit in our social world. The success of the telephone was heavily influenced by the fact it could be used socially, despite the attempts of the telephone company to stop such uses (and reserve it for business and other "serious" uses). The Segway allows you to be much more sociable with others while moving than many other forms of personal transportation. When two people ride bicycles or motor scooters near each other, there is always the likely danger of handlebars touching and a resulting crash. The Segway has no such problems it seems (while riding you can push each other with no worse effect than when walking). The Segway takes up about as much area as a person walking, so you can travel in groups much as you would with walking, with all the social advantages. I understand that such social interaction has been observed in early testers of the Segway. People using them "walked" together and talked together, turning their bodies somewhat towards each other. Unlike commuting in a car, Segway lets you travel part of the way to a destination with a friend and then go separate ways at the end.
This is one of the more obvious early examples of "active" mechanics in everyday use. Combining computer control, sensors, feedback loops, and servo-control, with wheels and strong engines is a new way of looking at mechanics. Aircraft have been moving in this direction, but for ordinary devices to move from simple levers and gears to intelligent control to make them possible is a major change in thinking. (Of course, deep inside some machines, such as with electronic fuel injection, this has been happening for some time, but that was just improving the mechanical approximations.) The capabilities of a "machine" are enormously expanded. (I've heard that the sci-fi book Snow Crash described such machines. One of the characters has a next generation skateboard that can go up and down stairs using wheels that have lots of spokes that extend and contract to adjust to the terrain.) Segway creates what they call "dynamic stabilization" which would be pretty hard to do with traditional mechanics. As a simple analogy, think of trying to get optical effects with grinding different types of lenses as opposed to using plug-ins to Photoshop.
I am surprised that we aren't hearing techies propose a combination of X-Games (skateboarding and bicycle tricks), Robot Wars (the TV show which highlights home-brew devices), and sampling/remixer artists. Imagine "reprogrammed" and "enhanced" Segways, with the expert rider able to call up different crafted behaviors at the push of a button, with extra accelerometers on their heads, legs, and arms, competing with stunts that would look like they were special effects in Crouching Tiger. What a skilled rider can do on a regular mountain bike is unbelievable. Imagine if the bike could help. I read in the newspaper that old muscle cars are "out". Now you take your Honda Civic or Audi A4 and put in new computer chips to reprogram the engine (fuel injection and timing is all computer controlled so you can trade emissions and mileage for performance). That's a simple start.
The Segway has an interesting user interface. It is very tightly coupled to the user and the user's natural means of expressing and feeling movement. Rather than go down the "assistant" metaphor route (e.g., "Home, James!" -- see my two essays: Metaphors, Not Conversations, and The "Computer as Assistant" Fallacy), the Segway amplifies your natural behaviors. The mouse and direct manipulation have surpassed natural language programs repeatedly. The Segway uses a whole body interface that is tuned to human motions and reactions to do what you want.
The Segway is a tool to improve cities. It was very interesting to learn about the Segway soon after reading Jane Jacob's classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Amazon link]. She talks about how important diversity is to the vibrancy of a city, and how the varied flow of people on sidewalks, interacting with each other, or stopping at stores, etc., makes things work. To her, the chaotic flow of not-too-long city blocks is crucial. Automobiles, because of their need for streets, ramps, parking, etc., break up this crucial world. Enter the Segway. You can envision how it enables all sorts of city designs that would better serve our needs.
Some people try to evaluate the Segway with respect to living designs that were optimized for the car (not the rich diversity of a place like Greenwich Village), for example Mike Langberg's detailed first person account of using one in the Mercury News ("Segway scooter handles well but can't conquer sprawl"). That's not the point. That's like complaining that the original VisiCalc can't do the detailed budget for a Fortune 500 company. Just like the car made possible certain things, and our cities evolved to take advantage of those, the Segway makes possible things we aren't doing, but can now evolve our cities to take advantage of. Obviously, new construction will be able to do this best, but over 20-40 years, old construction gets modified quite a bit. Cities like Cairo, Tokyo, New York, and others have evolved for walking, cars, subways, etc. We see many cities adding pedestrian and skater promenades where there used to be just cars.
Anybody who has traveled to other countries, such as in Europe, has probably come across cities where a large percentage of the population commutes by bicycle or motor scooter. This works, and automobiles do not work as well in those locales. The Segway is perfect for some of those, but more importantly, it shows that the automobile (being covered, and taking up lots of space for a single driver) is not the only personal mode of transportation that works in cities. A nice Vespa or Honda motor scooter costs on the same order as a personal Segway.
We have come to accept certain types of building styles that are dictated by the automobile and other technologies. For example, we either need to build huge parking lots right next to destinations, isolating them from their surroundings, or connect those huge parking lots to a single destination because of the expense of building "people movers" from one location to another. The Segway lets you keep the parking at a distance, but without the concentrated cost of a single people mover. One parking lot could serve multiple destinations, and a single destination could be served by many parking lots. Also, very expensive people movers, like Amtrak, can now serve a much wider area at each station if Segways could be rented or brought along.
The Segway can be programmed to stay in a particular area, so you can rent them like carts at an airport. Comparing their cost to dedicated people movers like monorails and moving walkways (which are often "free" to use), they may not cost much to rent, if at all, depending upon the situation. The "keys" are electronic, and like those used at Mobil gas stations, could be used in many interesting ways -- tourist "Segway passes", daily quotas, etc.
The vision used to be that our personal transportation device would need levitation to deal with terrain that wasn't perfect. (Think of how sensitive a railroad or monorail is.) People movers are heavy and need special strong roadbeds. Of course, mountain bikes, used by someone with good balance and skill, showed that wheels can go many of the places we can walk, if not more. The Segway brings that skill and low impact to ordinary riding. It doesn't need expensive roadbeds. It can even tolerate deterioration of the roadbed where people are likely to trip. Also, it needs much less area than cars. All that changes the equation in construction.
A wide range of people can successfully use the Segway, including people for whom walking a distance is a challenge. I've heard that it still works with people with injured legs, and people with Parkinson's disease. Segway is an inclusive new technology, not an excluding one. (The fact that it can deal with abnormal movements, such as Parkinson's, brings up the idea that perhaps a spinoff could be making diagnostic instruments that detect how your movement and reactions differ from normal -- sort of a super version of the crude "touch your nose and walk on your heels" tests doctors use.)
I hear comments about "what good is it if it doesn't carry anything?", and "I'll get tired of standing up", etc. Well, clearly it will evolve. The Segway web site shows pictures of it holding grocery bags, Dean is often shown on TV with a big briefcase on the fender, and their web site says it is designed to pull 300 pounds and I've seen pictures of carts behind one. Don't judge a technology purely by version 1. (Or is it 2.0? Dean Kamen's iBot wheelchair-like device which inspired the Segway is a lot slower than 12 miles per hour, and has four wheels.) Compare the first Apple II VisiCalc with no commas or dollar signs, equal width columns, upper case only, etc., to Excel even 8 years later. Quite an evolution.
Just some thoughts. I can't wait to try one and see if I still feel the same.
- Dan Bricklin, 17 December 2001
Slate reprinted some cartoons about the Segway.
Dan Gillmor expresses similar feelings about the human interface and active mechanics in his "Whatever its faults, Segway offers reason for optimism" article.
I had an opportunity to ride a Segway for about 2 hours in April 2002. Read "Impressions after riding a Segway HT".
Pictures of Dean Kamen speaking in late May of 2003 are on "Dean Kamen at MIMC Fireside Chat".
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