What is "IT"?
January 9, 2001 1:52 PM   Subscribe

What is "IT"? National Medal of Technology winner demos some kind of hush-hush invention to Bezos, Jobs, and Doerr: the consensus view is that it's bigger than the PC. Either one of the most stunning inventions of all time or one of the most stunning publicity stunts of all time. Possibly both.
posted by grimmelm (77 comments total)
Is is the Matrix?
posted by solistrato at 1:56 PM on January 9, 2001

A personal hovercraft? Architecting cities around it? Assembles in 10 minutes with a screwdriver and hex wrenches? Likely to run afoul of new regulations and/or inspire new ones?

A floor wax and a dessert topping! Complete with three detatchable rotary blades perfect for mowing the lawn!

I'm really hoping for this to be either for real or a complete and total hoax. If it's just some overhyped invention I'm going to be so disappointed.
posted by grimmelm at 1:56 PM on January 9, 2001 [1 favorite]

finally! the automated sexbots are here! Rejoice!
posted by chaz at 2:02 PM on January 9, 2001

Is it the "no-click" patent?
posted by xiffix at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2001

I'm with grimmelm on it being a transportation invention. Embedded in the article was the comment that the inventor is "an avid aviator who commutes via a helicopter." His most recent neat stuff, which was featured in Wired and on Charlie Rose, was the vertical "wheelchair" that could climb steps and traverse rough terrain.
posted by fpatrick at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2001

After reading the article I'd guess it is a personal transportation device. Kamen seems to have worked out how to dynamically balance a moving object on a single point of contact. I doubt that it flies...
posted by xiffix at 2:12 PM on January 9, 2001

It's a "smart" skateboard.
posted by jpoulos at 2:20 PM on January 9, 2001

Quote from the MSNBC article:

"In a private meeting with Bezos, Jobs and Doerr, Kamen assembled two Gingers — or ITs — in 10 minutes, using a screwdriver and hex wrenches from components that fit into a couple of large duffel bags and some cardboard boxes. "

Plus there was some laughter at the meeting. I'm betting this is more than just a personal transportation technology.

posted by daver at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2001

But, why would cities be built around it? Hmm.....
posted by tiaka at 2:27 PM on January 9, 2001

It's clearly an Instantaneous Teleporter. Didn't you guys read the part in the Inside article that said, "At one point, Kamen was assisted by a fellow named LaForge, who commented, 'I'm re-initializing the pattern buffers.' "

Cripes . . . I'm making ST:TNG jokes . . . stupid ST:TNG jokes at that . . . I need a drink.
posted by Skot at 2:30 PM on January 9, 2001

I knew I'd seen this guy before. Read the Wired article from last September.
posted by waxpancake at 2:32 PM on January 9, 2001

Get a handful of investors into a room with me under hush hush conditions and I'd be happy to demonstrate for them my secret ability to extract coins from their ears. This technology will revolutionize commerce as we know it. Whole economies will rise and fall based on which countries I choose to vacation in.
posted by fleener at 2:34 PM on January 9, 2001

The fact that he had two of them isvery peculiar.


posted by pnevares at 2:37 PM on January 9, 2001

Hmmm - "Kamen hopes that his family of Stirlings, five years in development, will soon bring portable electricity to nations without a reliable power grid - or any grid at all. He envisions briefcase-sized Stirlings powering cell phones and cell towers, as well as purifying water. He aims to have them on the market in the next two years, and is currently working on the marketing issues - like how developing nations will be able to afford bulk purchases of the engines, which are projected to cost $1,500 apiece."
posted by tiaka at 2:45 PM on January 9, 2001

I don't know if this story just repeats all the info at the inside.com article, but this AP news story states:

According to the inventor of "Ginger," 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."
posted by gluechunk at 2:46 PM on January 9, 2001

Hmm.. for people in the cities and dirty, the car is the only thing. I really can not think of anything else that's a problem today.
posted by tiaka at 2:51 PM on January 9, 2001

The article points out he's doing the work in conjunction with a company called DEKA. Wonder if we've got an electronics person on here who might be able to figure it out based on the job ops.?
posted by jwells at 2:52 PM on January 9, 2001

People in cities (especially in California) seem to be having trouble with power generation as well as transportation. I'll admit that I'm leaning towards the personal transport, but some sort of clean power supply (a portable fuel cell, perhaps?) would be my second choice.
posted by harmful at 2:57 PM on January 9, 2001

According to the inventor of "Ginger," 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."

Sounds like a doggy waste scooper to me, it could explain the laughter.
posted by Zool at 3:01 PM on January 9, 2001

Is it a revolutionary transportation device that uses pedals to power the rear of it's 2 wheels?
posted by davidgentle at 3:11 PM on January 9, 2001

It's a Jet Pack!
posted by cCranium at 3:12 PM on January 9, 2001

are dirty, expensive sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities.

He's invented a substitute for politicians?
posted by mikewas at 3:16 PM on January 9, 2001

It's a normal looking LazyBoy recliner that self piloting via an electric motor and a GPS unit. The chair also has a built-in computer with wireless Internet access and HiDef monitor.

The "pro" version comes with "magic fingers."
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:21 PM on January 9, 2001

I like the smart skateboard idea, only I can't imagine it dwarfing the world wide web. Web about communication. Skateboard about... ???
posted by daver at 3:25 PM on January 9, 2001

ooooohhhh UNCLE! UNCLE! (and don't mean the man in the lazyboy)
posted by subpixel at 3:25 PM on January 9, 2001

it's a prepetual motion machine or a teleporter
you heard it from me first.
posted by starduck at 3:36 PM on January 9, 2001

He's perfected Cold Fusion.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:41 PM on January 9, 2001

I think it's either a personal transportation device (perhaps hovering? I know DEKA has done research into flying cars before, and it is 2001 after all ^_^) or a cheap electricity source.

Either way, for the type of investment being made, the only improvements I could think of are:

- Basically free, non-polluting, portable energy (a new type of battery with 100's of x more power)?

- A car / personal vehicle with a cost under 2 grand


posted by Kevs at 3:55 PM on January 9, 2001

Gotta be a personal jet pack. A la the Jetsons.
posted by dithered at 4:01 PM on January 9, 2001

If he is going to be richer than Bill Gates in 5 years why is he accepting 250K for a book deal?

It's a small aluminium scooter.
posted by fullerine at 4:21 PM on January 9, 2001

Seriously though "ginger" could mean ginger rogers, IT's a walking machine.
posted by fullerine at 4:23 PM on January 9, 2001

It must be crap. No reason to keep it under lock and key for over a year unless there is much to gain from ridiculous media hype (which a true miracle wouldn't need).
posted by internook at 4:24 PM on January 9, 2001

If it's a fuel cell, it's not all that revolutionary. There was an article about them in New Scientist a few months ago, saying that within 5 years anyone will be able to have a hydrogen-based fuel cell in their home, suppling all their electricity needs and making enough extra that you can sell it back to the power company.

And that right there is probably your "regulations;" the way most states' laws are set up, you can't sell electricity on your own. And making power is certainly dirty.
posted by aaron at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2001

Wow, I just read the Wired article and am suitably impressed. The guy was inventing stuff and making 60k before graduating high school. Designed the portable dialysis machine. I can't wait to see what IT/Ginger is. (I too am suspecting some graceful alternative to the car.)
posted by Tubes at 4:32 PM on January 9, 2001

Internook, without a large amount of media hype would we be able to notice a miracle without being told it was?

If a tree falls in the woods...

posted by schlomo at 4:32 PM on January 9, 2001

I appear to have found what this ridiculously over-hyped 'IT' actually is. Taking a look at the DEKA site with Google's cache, this is revealed:

"We are proud to announce that a key DEKA technology was recently featured on Dateline NBC. On June 30th, Dateline featured an extended segment on the development of the INDEPENDENCE TM 3000 IBOTTM Transporter. The INDEPENDENCETM 3000 is the first model of a new class of mobility devices.
Take a look at Johnson & Johnson's new INDEPENDENCE Technology web site for more details on this exciting new product."

Independence Transporter...Independence Technology...is this really 'IT'?

Flicking through the Johnson & Johnson site which the DEKA refers to, 'IT' appears to be nothing more than a souped-up wheelchair (albeit pretty nifty).

(And yes, DEKA Research and Development Corporation is Dean Kamen's company. This is confirmed both on the front page, and at the National Academy of Engineering)

posted by waterfrog at 4:37 PM on January 9, 2001

Maybe it's a revolutionary new soda. Like Canada Dry meets Crystal Pepsi!
posted by waxpancake at 4:38 PM on January 9, 2001

IT isn't the iBot. re-read some of those other articles.
posted by gluechunk at 4:54 PM on January 9, 2001

Unfortunately, "IT" wasn't covered on Dateline. What was covered was exactly what you said, a fantastic new wheelchair that can balance on 2 wheels. However, it's not really a secret anymore. Ginger's something different... wouldn't be surprised to see some of the same technology, wouldn't be surprised if it's totally different. Good try tho!
posted by daver at 4:57 PM on January 9, 2001

Ok, I was too enthusiastic to quell the hype it seems! So I might as well join it. I'd lay my bets on 'IT' being a personal transportation device (an 'Independence Transporter') based on the iBot. The next scooter fad perhaps?
posted by waterfrog at 5:08 PM on January 9, 2001

in certain circles, yes.
posted by internook at 6:16 PM on January 9, 2001

can't access the damn article...inside server must be getting hit HARD
posted by physics at 6:49 PM on January 9, 2001

You know, this is definitely marketing spin, but I think it's marketing for the book more than the actual product. It seems like Kemper's much more interested in the press than Kamen.
posted by evad at 7:43 PM on January 9, 2001

Maybe it's a "personal helicopter" sort of like this thing.

posted by mcguirk at 8:24 PM on January 9, 2001

I don't see how it could be a Stirling engine, although it's funny they mentioned Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. I read a book by Mark Shelton called The Next Great Thing which was a sort of SNM for the Sunpower Inc.'s work on building a marketable Stirling.

This bit is a bit suspicious:

Why the secrecy? Kamen fears, as he states in a letter to Kemper that is included in the proposal, that ''huge corporations'' might catch wind of the invention and ''use their massive resources to erect obstacles against us or, worse, simply appropriate the technology by assigning hundreds of engineers to catch up to us, and thousands of employees to produce it in their plants.''

What, no patent protection? Another guess: personal garbage incinerator/generator!

posted by xiffix at 8:30 PM on January 9, 2001

The article clearly states the reasons for secrecy, which makes total sense. I sort of find it funny how everyone complains about the hype surrounding this, when really it's only been written up in one big place, Inside, which is pretty much an industry pub doing an article about the book. From what I can see, the company itself has not done anything to try to get hyped at this point, they are keeping secret for the reasons in the article.

The article was definitely a bit hyperbolic about the invention, but it still sounds like it'll be quite amazing, I've read things written by folks who saw the Ibot and they invariably are totally stunned by it.
posted by beefula at 9:09 PM on January 9, 2001

Well, if it's like many of the other recent techs, unless the pr0n industry can use it, it'll never fly.
posted by Foaf at 4:42 AM on January 10, 2001

Woohoo! Jet Pack Porn!
posted by cCranium at 6:20 AM on January 10, 2001

Direct from the U.S. Patent Office, this could be it. The patent is here. Part of the iBot patent. I can feel the transforming effects already...
posted by xiffix at 7:17 AM on January 10, 2001

Wow- that's gotta be IT! Great research. Sounds like fun & I can't wait to try one, but I can't imagine it being affordable. (I also can't imagine it being more significant than the PC or the Internet, as claimed in the original story.)
posted by Tubes at 7:39 AM on January 10, 2001

I've got it! IT is hype for a book! woo! No patent necessary, just journalist's complicity.

xiffix, I think that's just for the super wheelchair. Same base for the wheels, different support for the rider. To wit.

I hope it isn't another stupid scooter. Do you know how many 12 year-old menaces roll by me everyday on of those goddamn ‘rippers’? Not to mention the scooter xiffix links to would be dangerous as hell if it went over five miles an hour.

I'm sticking with the subway.

The Inside message boards are talking about anti-grav and magnets and who-ha. Which makes sense, in a way, because who would be shocked by a scooter when it's turned on? If it started hovering, that'd be something. It's still bluster, though. No one is going to re-arrange a city for a hoverboard.

Since this is the book section...
author: Chino
date: January 10, 2001 4:16 AM
...I'll take a deconstructionist approach. Subtract the letters "GINGER" from "STIRLING ENGINE" and you'll be left with letters that spell "SIT" and "LINE." So, whether he meant to or not, Kamen has invented an ultra-efficient, recumbant transportation device. Alternately "STIRLING ENGINE" rearranges into "GINGER ISN'T LIE." Thank you, Comp Lit.

posted by capt.crackpipe at 8:04 AM on January 10, 2001

Replaces something dirty, expensive, frustrating? Runs afoul of laws? Named after Ginger Rogers?

Clearly, the next-generation RealDoll.
posted by ffmike at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2001

Jet Pack-equipped RealDoll Porn!

It just gets better and better!

(alright, I'll shut up now.)
posted by cCranium at 9:27 AM on January 10, 2001

My guess is that he's invented a package of hot dog buns and a package of hot dogs that contain the same amount of each item.
posted by bondcliff at 9:37 AM on January 10, 2001

Obviously it's the Porta Potty of the future.
posted by Outlawyr at 10:36 AM on January 10, 2001

I can't pull up the Inside.com message board; it's probably swamped, but since my post there is quoted here (thanks capt) here's a rundown of investigation.

1. -The Hype theory- Big claims made, though obviously inflated by the media. No big name outlet has picked up the story yet, except Salon, which has done no follow-up. Jobs is at MacWorld, so surely someone could have cornered him for confirmation that at least the meeting happened. Of course, confirmation of an earlier story is not a story.

2. -Levitation/hovercraft- Not likely. Kamen is an engineer and inventor; there is no evidence that he's a theoretical physicist. Furthermore, even if he managed to figure out some antigravity device (we don't even understand gravity yet, BTW), he'd still have a hell of a chore figuring out the braking.

3. -Stirling engine- Kamen is known to be working on this idea (see that Wired article), and several of his most recent patents involve them. Stirling engines aren't fantasy, they are used regularly in refrigeration applications. NASA and Los Alamos also have research going on them (NASA's site has a wonderful explanation of the physics behind it). However, I can't imagine Bezos getting too worked up over this before Jobs explained it to him. And why would cities be designed around a new power source? A few power poles might be cut down, but retrofitting would be a little extreme.

4. -Personal transportation- All the clues are there: noisy, dirty, frustrating, plus all of Kamen's work on the iBOt. iBot patents include a balancing mechanism that works by shifting the center of gravity. Perhaps the guffaws came when a switch was thrown and the device suddenly stood up on two (or possibly one) wheel.

5. -My personal fave- A (4) running on a (3). That would piss off plenty of big corporations (not only oil and auto, but electricity and construction), and could do some serious damage to economic stability.

So why the "Blair Witch" approach to its announcement? Why pull in folks that know diddly about hyper-efficient engines or transportation? Because grass-roots support will be important to keep legislation from killing it. I know every conspiracy theory makes some reference to the "military-industrial complex" but I've got to think that BP/Shell is shitting its collective pants. As for the supposed secrecy and Kamen's fear of someone stealing his idea, the Stirling engine was invented in 1816, and many of its patents have expired. God is all details at this point.

So let us pray for clean, cheap, efficient engergy, preferably that goes zero to sixty in under six seconds. The transistor is as old as my dad. Aren't we due for another breakthrough?
posted by chino at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2001

Mark Frauenfelder has done some investigation about IT over at Boing Boing (Jan 10 entry). It looks like he might have uncovered the patent for IT.
posted by jkottke at 2:00 PM on January 10, 2001

Aw, heck. If that is it, I have one word for those that think it'll revolutionize the way we live.

posted by crunchland at 3:12 PM on January 10, 2001

Whatever "IT" is, it is sure to generate riots in the streets if our oppressive governments were even to concider banning IT or regulating IT.

Which is nice.
posted by dagny at 3:39 PM on January 10, 2001

Here is a newer (granted Dec. 14, 2000) patent diagram. Note that we are now down to two wheels.
posted by xiffix at 4:04 PM on January 10, 2001

This is some crazy shit. In pages 45-52, we are down to one wheel. If they've figured out how to do realtime balance correction (which, judging from these drawings and from the special I saw on Dateline NBC about this guy's robo-wheelchair, they have), that's going to be something really special.
posted by jkottke at 4:29 PM on January 10, 2001

THAT IS AMAZING! I didn't know people still wore polo shirts under sweaters! Hey, where’s the flood poindexter?

How would one go about holding up the scooter with one wheel? Are there actuators in the tire?

Balancing the machine on one wheel is cool, but I am not going to stop buying a metrocard every month even if this does run on a super-efficient engine. I currently pay no insurance/maintenence/fuel on my longboard. No power is as portable as foot power, and $2000 has one more zero than $200.

Chino: How dare you post on other boards. I thought we were going steady.

posted by capt.crackpipe at 4:50 PM on January 10, 2001

Hmm. Remember how we laughed at all those 40's to 50's sci fi ideas? IT certainly looks a lot like one. If it works then the future will look like tomorow. Only grungier.
posted by davidgentle at 5:22 PM on January 10, 2001

If those pictures Jason found are really IT, I would say that the impact would be enormous. Revising the laws of physics... amazing.

The sideways one without joystick control looks rather interesting. And it would be fun at parties.
posted by hijinx at 6:14 PM on January 10, 2001

What am I missing here? What's the big deal? It's a scooter! A scooter based on really neat engineering principles, yes, but a scooter nonetheless. This object is destined to "change the world" about as much as Freeplay radios. It will be quite useful in the developing world, assuming it can be manufactured at an affordable price. It will be a great toy in the First World. It will sell and make Kamen lots of cash. But there's not one person in America that's going to give up their car for one of these.

Well, maybe Ed Begley, Jr.
posted by aaron at 10:15 PM on January 10, 2001

Doesn't revise the laws of physics one whit. Ever heard of a gyroscope?! But my, the engineering to get one compact and persistent enough to work in this application. I think the fuel-cell speculative comments are not unrelated.
posted by dhartung at 10:28 PM on January 10, 2001

But there's not one person in America that's going to give up their car for one of these.

Short term, definitely not in the suburbs and possibly not in the cities. I think it'd be a hit with the kids first and work its way from there, so long as other people are given a valid reason to get it.

A scooter based on really neat engineering principles, yes, but a scooter nonetheless.

But scooters today are based on other objects - skateboards. IT, again assuming these photos are indeed the thing, is not directly derivative of another form of transportation to a substantial degree. Yes, it is similar to a scooter, but it's a one wheel scooter. Imagine later having one wheeled cars. One wheeled unicycles that never tip over. Imagine the industrial applications - in factories and assembling plants. Imagine the commercial applications.

I maintain that if this is IT, it's pretty big.
posted by hijinx at 6:21 AM on January 11, 2001

NDAs were signed over IT. IT is being kept secret so that big corporations won't steal the idea.

If this really were IT, do you think some weblogger would be able to find diagrams of IT so easily? Also, I imagine MSNBC and whatever news sits ran the article would have checked the patent office already.
posted by bondcliff at 7:47 AM on January 11, 2001

Why shouldn't we extrapolate IT from the work Kamen has already patented? The guy's work is incremental. Yes, he might have been working on some other miracle in the background all these years, but how exactly do you protect an idea by not applying for a patent. And how exactly do you keep an idea secret which is (if you believe the article) going to require a company larger than any in New Hampshire to manufacture and market? At some point, the story would have gotten out.

Personally, I'd rather be cynical about the way this story has been broken and the buzz surrounding it. Too easy? Surely. Reason? Buzz.
posted by xiffix at 8:57 AM on January 11, 2001

But there's not one person in America that's going to give up their car for one of these.

Short term, definitely not in the suburbs and possibly not in the cities. I think it'd be a hit with the kids first and work its way from there, so long as other people are given a valid reason to get it.

I don't care where I'd live, there's no way I'd give up my car for one of these. One very important thing my car has. It's called heat.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:16 PM on January 11, 2001

Don't worry! Global warming'll take care of that.
posted by hijinx at 8:20 AM on January 12, 2001

Ginger Roger's danced on air. In the film "Carefree" (1938), the musical number "Colorblind" is filmed in slow-motion. Everytime Fred lifts Ginger, looks like she's literally floating.

An anti-grav device is really unlikely: it's too revolutionary. Would your first application of antigravity be a consumer device? But a hovercraft device isn't impossible. Controling the balance of such a device would be the greatest impediment -- but if we're seeing one-wheeled scooters, balance isn't a problem. The patent figures show two wheels to one wheel. What's next? No wheels.

Finally, any wheeled device is going to have traction issues. It's pretty icy around right now, and I wouldn't ride a scooter if you paid me. A one wheeled scooter could easily spin out of control on icy or irregular surfaces, no matter what the balance system. But if there's surface contact? No problemo.

posted by chick purchase at 8:38 AM on January 12, 2001

That's "no surface contact." Silly me.

posted by chick purchase at 8:39 AM on January 12, 2001

Kamen sits on a panel on "Completing the Technology Revolution" at Davos, claims "I'm working on ten different projects. I don't even know which one they were talking about."
posted by ewagoner at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2001

For those interested parties, 60 Minutes II is doing a piece on IT tonight. While I ordinarily wouldn't care, given that it was the very first thing I heard this morning when my alarm went off, it's a Carol Marin report - and she's got skills.

I expect nothing to be revealed but high ratings for CBS.
posted by hijinx at 10:43 AM on February 6, 2001

I think it's some kind of personal travel system, like a scooter, with two parallel wheels and a gyroscopic balancing system so it won't fall over. I bet they call it "segway"
posted by Spoon at 8:09 AM on January 9, 2002 [1 favorite]

LOL, spoon.
posted by jpoulos at 8:28 AM on January 9, 2002

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