Changing the world, gingerly

The world is still reeling from an early glimpse of "Ginger," the revolutionary transportation device by award-winning inventor Dean Kamen. It's been almost a year since information about Mr. Kamen's top-secret invention - originally called "IT" - slipped into the news.

Early speculation suggested that Kamen was receiving guidance from an intelligent source on Alpha Centauri. Less hyperbolic reports indicated that the brilliant millionaire was working on a machine capable of stopping time or a ray-gun that would cause the guys who made fun of me in high school to lose all their hair.

Finally, this week, the rumors were put to rest when Kamen demonstrated a two-wheeled battery-powered device at his company's headquarters in Manchester, N.H. The Segway Human Transporter goes on average 8 miles an hour after a 6-hour battery charge, making it perfect for traveling to social engagements you hope never to reach.

City planners said the new transporter could radically alter the way people move on streets and sidewalks. Americans, long at risk of overexercising, welcomed the news by breaking out Ding-Dongs and watching people celebrate exuberantly on TV.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, reportedly said the 65-pound device could be as significant as the personal computer. (Bill Gates immediately began plans to make a similar device that crashes for no apparent reason.)

Kamen suggested that his machine was the first improvement in personal transportation since the invention of the sneaker. The company hopes to offer giant Odor-Eaters with its deluxe model when production begins next year.

The early hype seemed hard to believe, but interviews conducted this week with third-graders on my street confirmed that the world of scooters will never be the same. Billy, 8, said, "It's really cool." Told that the device will cost $3,000, he asked: "What'll you give me for this toad?"

Innovation experts, fresh from their work on the Clinton healthcare plan, predict that the bulky electric scooter is just the first of Kamen's products to change life as we know it. "In 10 years, our society will be completely transformed," one said, while sipping a New Coke at the BETA video conference.

Sources close to Kamen say the company is currently developing:

• A revolutionary new Hula-Hoop. Code-named "O," the device can spin around its wearer for 45 minutes, sitting or standing.

• A shockingly original jump-rope that can complete schoolyard rhymes even with "orange" and "silver."

• Magic marbles. Though they're the size and weight of bowling balls, these remarkable spheres will be capable of rolling 4 miles an hour even in dim light.

• A plastic cylinder that, when kicked, sounds uncannily like a metal can. Estimated cost: under $750. Future versions may be reusable.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor and an occasional satirist.

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