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Mystery of Ginger ends

The ultrasecret invention turns out to be a self-balancing, motorized scooter that costs less than 5 cents a day to operate, according to the company developing the device.

The ultrasecret invention that has kept the high-tech world abuzz for nearly a year turns out to be a self-balancing, motorized scooter that costs less than 5 cents a day to operate, according to the company developing the device.

The machine, previously known as "Ginger" and "IT" but officially called the Segway Human Transporter, could replace private cars in crowded city centers and could also prove useful on factory floors, said Tobe Cohen, marketing director of Segway.

Segway expects to introduce a consumer model of the battery-powered scooter for around $3,000 by the fourth quarter of 2002.

The two-wheeled device uses a complex array of gyroscopes and computers to mimic the human body's sense of balance, according to Segway employees who demonstrated the scooter Monday at a park in midtown New York City.

People lean forward to move forward, lean back to reverse course, and turn by twisting the handle. The device looks like an old-fashioned push lawn mower, with the handle sticking up in the air and a platform to stand on where the cutting blades would be.

Falling over is impossible and the scooter can handle ice, snow and stairs with ease, Cohen said.

"We're showing off two types of Segways: an industrial model that has greater range and speed and the ability to carry cargo, and a trimmer one with smaller wheels for the densest pedestrian environments," Cohen said.

The scooter is the latest gadget from award-winning inventor Dean Kamen, who has also developed the first insulin pump, a briefcase-sized dialysis machine, and a wheelchair that can climb stairs. The scooter builds on "dynamic balancing" technologies Kamen used to create his wheelchair.

The scooter is powered by standard nickel and metal hydride electric batteries built by SAFT, a unit of France's Alcatel. However, Kamen's research firm, DEKA Research and Development, is working on an emission-free engine that recycles much of its own heat.

"We're pretty agnostic on power sources for (the scooter)," Cohen said. Widespread speculation in the media and Internet chat rooms held that Kamen's device involved some sort of revolutionary new engine technology.

With a range of roughly 17 miles and a top speed of 12 miles per hour, the scooter is not a practical replacement for the automobile on long-distance trips, according to Kamen and others at privately held Segway.

Rather, they see the machine as a handy way to get around congested urban areas where driving a car is inconvenient or impossible, or as a practical "people-mover" in developing nations such as China.

Segway has received backing from two lead investors: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Silicon Valley's premiere venture capitalist firm, and the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston. The two have invested $38 million each.

Segway executives have met with city planners and federal safety regulators to ensure the scooter will be allowed to share sidewalks with pedestrians, Time magazine reported in its Monday edition.

The U.S. Postal Service plans to test the device for its letter carriers, and will run trials for use of the vehicle in its warehouses. Tests are also under way at parcel-delivery service FedEx, the U.S. National Park Service, General Electric's GE Plastics, auto parts maker Delphi Automotive Systems, and French tire maker Michelin, Cohen said.

Corporate partners such as the Postal Service and Amazon are testing a dozen scooters each, and mass corporate deliveries could begin by the end of the first quarter next year 2002, Cohen said. Segway has built a factory in Bedford, N.H., 8 miles from its headquarters in Manchester, that will be able to make 40,000 scooters a month, the executive said.

The demonstration of the vehicle caps a year of frenzied speculation, about what exactly Ginger could be, sparked initially by a leak on the now-defunct media Web site in January.

Popular interest was boosted by endorsements from a range of high-tech mavens including Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs. Web sites have buzzed with rumors about the device.

Among those sites, "The IT question" posts links to patent applications filed by Kamen, while "Ginger-chat" featured a clock counting down the hours until this morning, when the scooter was demonstrated.

Further details about Segway can be found on the company's Web site.