Figuring Out 'Ginger' Is No Snap

Figuring Out 'Ginger' Is No Snap<@VM>What Ginger Could Be<@VM>What Ginger Should Be

Renato DiPentima

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

What if you had a personal hovercraft? How about a headset that can translate spoken words into any language? Could a slippery slide get you around town?

These are some of the answers we got when we asked members of the Washington Technology community, and an irreverent artist and social commentator, to weigh in on the mysterious invention called Ginger, also known as IT.

Ginger, the product of prolific inventor Dean Kamen, quickly captured the attention of mainstream media after the Web site Inside.com reported Jan. 9 that Harvard Business School Press paid $250,000 for a book about it. Only a select few know what Ginger is, and Kamen, his investors and the book's author aren't telling.

Kamen's inventions include the first portable insulin pump and a wheelchair that can climb stairs. He won the 2000 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest technology award.

"The guy is amazing. He is endless with his inventions," said Renato DiPentima, president of consulting and systems integration at SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

Proponents say Kamen's latest creation could be more revolutionary than the World Wide Web or personal computer. Its boosters include Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of online retailing giant Amazon.com Inc., and Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive officer of Apple Computer Inc.

Some people speculate that Ginger is a transportation device. Jobs reportedly said people would construct cities around the invention. Kamen has said Ginger is "an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities."

Investor Credit Suisse First Boston reportedly expects the invention to make 49-year-old Kamen wealthier than Bill Gates, the billionaire chairman of software giant Microsoft Corp.

Kamen, who lives outside Manchester, N.H., said in a statement Jan. 12 that Ginger is promising, but it is "nothing of the Earth-shattering nature that people are conjuring up."

Kamen's comment, however, hasn't dampened interest in Ginger.

We asked DiPentima and others what Kamen's invention could be, and what it should be. Our subjects responded profoundly and prolifically, because of what they know of Kamen, and be-cause of their sense of the possible, the necessary and the whimsical.

Dendy Young

A Newfangled Scooter

Such a device, DiPentima said, would probably be collapsible, made for one person, powered by electricity and able to balance itself automatically.

"How this would make [Kamen] more wealthy than Bill Gates, I'm not sure," DiPentima said. "But then again, if you asked me how a guy selling disks with software 15 years ago could be worth a billion dollars [today], I wouldn't believe you, either."

A personal transportation device such as a scooter would obviously be a good alternative to a car in a city, said Frank Pugliese, head of the government unit of Provant Inc., a Boston information technology firm. The device would use the microchip technology that enables Kamen's IBOT wheelchair to automatically balance itself, he said.

A Hovercraft, Trolley or Rail System
Ginger could also be a personal hovercraft, or an integrated rail system designed to move city dwellers efficiently, thereby transforming where and how cities are designed, added Pugliese, who offered six theories on Ginger.

"I've heard [it's a] new kind of overhead trolley for mass transit in the inner city," said Gerard "Rocky" Roccanova, vice president of wireless initiatives for Cleveland-based TRW Inc.

A Flying Carpet

Dendy Young, chairman and chief executive officer of GTSI Corp. in Chantilly, Va., was quite certain what Ginger would be.

"It is clear to me that this device is a personal transportation device [or PTD], also known as a flying carpet," he said.

"It will be ergonomically engineered to be soft and comfortable to sit on at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Controls will be hidden ... because it will use advanced voice recognition technology to interpret spoken commands.

"The range will be 75 miles, making it ideal as a replacement for the smog-generating automobile," Young said. "The integrated GPS [global positioning system] will permit the driver to proceed directly to the voice-identified destination at a height ... not to exceed 100 feet, eliminating the need for roadways and assuring that the path to the destination is direct. (We are anticipating angry pushback from nude sunbathers)."

Pat McGinnis

A Sidewalk Luge

"I hope Ginger is a form of sidewalk luge: a slick surface upon which a chairlike sled can travel a great distance with little energy," said Scott Adams, creator of the "Dilbert" comic strip.

The Danville, Calif., artist added: "I believe it was demonstrated to the [venture capitalists] by putting Jeff Bezos on the chair on a small patch of the slick surface and spinning him until he got goofy.

"Cities could be built with these special slick sidewalks underground. I would like to live in that city."

A Transporter

Such a tool would be useful for getting out of meetings and taking out the garbage, DiPentima said. "You just beam it somewhere," he said.

Similarly, Marty Wagner, associate administrator for governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration in Washington, wanted Ginger to provide the ability to attend meetings in three-dimensional form, but from afar.

Patricia McGinnis wished for a real-life Wizard-of-Oz experience. "It would be great if Ginger were a set of ruby-red slippers, which with two clicks, would take you wherever you want to go," said McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government in Washington.

A Thinker

Wagner wants a "meaning parser." An MP is "something that makes the computer do what I want it to do, not what I tell it to do," he said.

A Teen-ager Eradicator
This device could prove popular.

"People might agree, teen-agers can be expensive, somewhat unruly and most certainly frustrating (I know I was), especially for people in the cities," Pugliese said.

A Translator

A headset that would automatically translate its wearer's speech into the language of his or her companion "would really change the world," Roccanova said.

Roccanova's two teen-agers conceived of this revolutionary invention. With it, 13-year-old Craig would be able to speak Spanish without going to class, and 15-year-old Casey would be able to travel the world without a language barrier.

"It's not really that farfetched when you consider speech recognition [technology]," said Roccanova, who is also chief executive officer of TRW digital broadband networking subsidiary Picture PipeLine LLC in Carson, Calif., which provides services to the entertainment industry.

Sustenance

"I would want Ginger to be virtual food and medicine, which could be transmitted to and absorbed by people in the remotest, poorest locations of the world," McGinnis said.

"I can't wait to find out what Ginger really is," she said.

What do you think Ginger is, or want it to be? E-mail emery@postnewsweektech.com

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