Electronic Design

More Media Hype? Segway Transporter Named Finalist For ESC's Best-Of-Show

While walking the aisles at April's Embedded Systems Conference, someone accused me of creating "media hype" via my recent column on living with the risk of terrorist attacks. "You are a victim of political and media hype—plain and simple. Oops, I forgot, you are the media," observed my accuser.

While I was able to defend myself against that charge, I admit that this column's content could well be regarded as media hype.

The Segway Human Transporter (HT) has been one of the most hyped engineering projects of the new millennium. Starting with "controlled leaks" to the press more than two years ago, this was the secret $100 million "Ginger" project that venture capitalist John Doerr said "could be bigger than the Internet." Speculation about what it would be ballooned beyond reason. Hovercraft? Helicopter backpack? Perhaps we'd finally be "beamed up." Time magazine shadowed its inventor, Dean Kamen, for months, sworn to secrecy. Then last year, "the world's first self-balancing human transporter" debuted with an auction on Amazon.com and a high bidder paid $150,000 to be the first HT owner.

Because the HT employs DSP chips made by Texas Instruments, the company showed the unit at its ESC booth. And, it was selected to be a finalist in the conference's Best-Of-Show contest. This recognition was well deserved: The HT's sophisticated system of dynamic stabilization certainly showcases electronic engineering that deserves some hype.

The unit's self-balancing act is based on a sensor array consisting of five solid-state gyroscopic sensors and two tilt sensors. The array provides instantaneous tilt, pitch, and roll data on the position of the machine in three dimensions. That data, coupled with feedback from the electrical motors that operate the wheels, is fed to TI's C2000 DSP chips, which make real-time wheel-control adjustments up to 1000 times per second. The wheel adjustment system additionally controls steering by turning the HT's two wheels at different rates.

Tom Harris, author of How Stuff Works, compares the HT's "smarts" to the balancing mechanism of the human body, which served as Kamen's model for the device. Harris likens its microprocessors to the brain and its tilt sensors to the inner-ear balancing system. For his description, go to www.segway.com/segway/how_it_works.

What did I think? First off, with my background in automated data capture technologies, any vehicle that uses Dallas Semiconductor's iButtons for its "ignition" system gets bonus points in my book. (Each iButton consists of a computer chip enclosed in a 16-mm stainless-steel can.) The HT employs three iButtons: a different one for low, medium, or high speed.

But more importantly, the intuitive nature of the HT's control—lean forward to move, lean backward to stop (on a dime)—creates an innately fun riding sensation. Man and machine are one: The HT is a real kick to ride.

But am I ready to further fuel the media hype? Sorry, Segway, but as we celebrate the 100-year anniversaries of flight and the founding of Ford Motor Co. and Harley-Davidson, I just can't see the HT qualifying for a place in the Transportation Hall of Fame. Once the hype expires and the novelty wears off, Segway hopes the product will be adopted by both business and government. But my guess is that most workers would need more cargo room and/or to have their hands free (i.e., postal workers to sort mail and open fence gates, mailboxes, etc). As for recreational riding, at $3,000, it's an awfully expensive toy—without the adrenaline rush of power sports or the fitness benefits of human-powered transport. So, what's the next big thing?

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