Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Segway, Part II

One of the intriguing things about popular culture is its willingness to adopt leading edge technology as its own, even if the vast majority of those who would potentially consume said culture will never have a prayer of actually using or owning it in their lifetimes.

To wit, the Segway. Officially known as the Human Transporter, this computer-controlled, gyroscopically-balanced, electrically-powered broomstick-on-wheels was supposed to revolutionize inner-city travel when it first hit the market three years ago. Although hype was boosted to stratospheric levels by a near-brilliant viral marketing campaign in the weeks prior to its official announcement, reality has knocked the wonder-wheeled device down a peg or two.

First, the thing’s too expensive for words. Four grand for a glorified toy means only the early adopters will ever find virtue in the thing. The rest of us will save our pennies for more useful implements, like bikes, and roller blades ($200 will get you a heck of a pair, and a better workout.) Heck, even a car has more utility (I’ll duck now.)

Second, it looks dumb. Americans want their stuff to look good and substantial, since they believe if their stuff looks good, then they look good as well. It’s convoluted logic, but it seems to work for them. Which means a stick with wheels can never truly escape the grafted-scooter look that screams K-Mart Blue Light Special more than it does Sharper Image Premium Product.

Remember the Bone Phone? Similar concept – unique product – but Americans rejected it because wearing a flaccid snake-like radio around their necks just didn’t make them look cool enough.

Third, it’s a technology in search of a problem. Its limited range and speed mean it’s useful only within a relatively small radius. Yet, it’s fast and wide enough that many municipalities have banned it from sidewalks, making it pretty much illegal to use outside of your house. Its weight and bulkiness mean you can’t just carry it on the bus or pop it into your car for a quick lunchtime tour. Usually, fickle consumers need one compromise to justify complete indifference. In this case, the list of compromises runs longer than my arm. It’s no wonder this thing has sold like Edsel cars and Coleco Adam computers.

The January, 2003, BusinessWeek article, Is Segway Going Anywhere?, asks a number of valid questions about innovation and its apparent disconnectedness from market success. This research paper from the New Jersey Institute of Technology asks whether there’s room on our streets for these vehicles. Away from the questioning pages of the editorial world, they’ve even run into obstacles usually faced by cars: they’ve been recalled.

Regardless, the Human Transporter, despite the loser noose it wears around its slender, handlebar-graced neck, became a bit of a media darling. It has shown up as window dressing in more shows than I care to remember, including Frasier and The Simpsons. It has also managed to send Dubya tumbling to the ground when he managed to fool its foolproof gyroscope. And now comes word that its manufacturers have designed a four-wheeled sibling, called the Centaur. Popular Science has this to say about the new vehicle.

It would seem that another minute has passed, making it a statistical certainty that yet another sucker has been born into this world.


Diva said...

Great write up! We also have the Segway of the Sea.

Carmi said...

I guess there's a gadget out there for everyone. I've always found it funny how the ability of these things to satisfy us seems to last for such a short period of time. The more gimmicky the gadget, the more likely it is to gather dust in the back of the garage before long.

Would the world be a better place if we weren't so darn consumerist-driven?