What is IT?
From Diana J. Choyce
Mar 12 -25, 2001
For most of us, the letters IT stand for Information Technology. But for this article, IT stands for a mysterious and much debated new invention. Since the story broke at the beginning of this year, worldwide curiosity has risen at an alarming rate. Why the big deal? Well according to the inventor, Dean Kamen, his device will be an alternative to products that are "dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities". According to ABC News, "It's going to change your life. It's bigger than the Internet and the PC. Some say it may make more money in its first year than any other startup in history, and its inventor will be worth more than Bill Gates in five years". No one involved in the project will talk about it. And it probably won't reach the retail market until 2002. There was never any intention for it to become a news item until the parties involved were ready to release information. However, Harvard Business School Press paid a quarter of a million dollars for the rights on the book about this invention. In the book proposal, the author quotes several people who have seen "IT." They say "IT" will be as significant as the personal computer, that it will sweep over the world and change lives, cities, and ways of thinking. Inside.com broke the story of the invention when the reporter there got an e-mail containing the book proposal. The Harvard press declined to say when the book is coming out. It will be written by Steve Kemper, whose articles have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian and elsewhere. So the race is on to speculate, debate, and dig for the dirt on this new invention.
The inventor behind this phenomenon is Dean Kamen. His previous inventions include the portable insulin pump, the heart stent, and a radical improvement on old wheelchair designs. Kamen is the son of a cartoon artist who once advised him, make sure you pick a job you love. Even as a successful inventor, Kamen says there are inventions that he has in mind, but hasn't been able to achieve. But he doesn't give up. "I will never take defeat," he says. "I may go down in a ball of flames, but I am not going to suffer the warm death of mediocrity." Beside his inventions, Kamen is involved in a mission he calls F.I.R.S.T. His intention is to introduce high school age children to the excitement and satisfaction of being inventors. For the last nine years, high-school students from all over the United States compete in specific tasks with robots they design themselves. Kamen gets first class engineers and scientists to help out. "Kids need to be shown two things: That it really is fun and exciting and that they have the capacity to do it". F.I.R.S.T. is built around the simple concept that learning how to learn can be fun. "The probability that these kids are really going to grow up and make millions of dollars dribbling or hitting a golf ball is very, very low," he says. "And we sit here today and there are hundreds of thousands of technical jobs out there going unfilled because there is nobody there with the technical competence to do it." So Kamen wants to get kids excited about inventions. Which, to his initial dismay, is exactly what has happened recently with all the attention on IT. "We saw hundreds, if not thousands of e-mails," Kamen says. "People all of a sudden speculating all over the world." Kamen wouldn't say when the world might expect to finally get a peak at IT.
CNET, an internet news company, has found that a patent was filed for the invention with the World Intellectual Property Organization's International Bureau on 14 Dec., 2000, and lists Manchester, N.H. based DEKA Research and Development as the applicant. The abstract of the patent, titled "Personal Mobility Vehicles and Methods,"describes"a class of transportation vehicles for carrying an individual over a surface that may be irregular." The application also lists Kamen as the inventor of the unnamed product. But the patent does not refer to the device by either of the names that have been used in recent reports about Kamen's unspecified invention, "IT" and "Ginger". The device listed on the application, as listed on the patent information Web site Delphion.com, fits some of what is known about the device. In the book proposal, Kamen says the device will have an effect on some billion-dollar old-line companies. The application includes drawings of various devices, including a unit similar to the electric scooters now popular with urban workers. Kemper mentions the invention may require work by "city planners, regulators, legislators, large commercial companies, and university presidents about how cities, companies and campuses can be retrofitted for Ginger." Amid the speculation, Kamen and the company he invents for, DEKA, have been tight-lipped concerning details. In a release, Kamen teased the public with a few particulars, including a 10-minute assembly time, a price tag of less than $2,000, and a debut date of 2002. But in the statement released last week, Kamen backed away from the hype, saying the "leaked book proposal quoted several prominent technology leaders out of context, without their doubts, risks and maybes included. This, together with spirited speculation about the unknown, has led to expectations that are beyond whimsical." And so, the debate goes on.