Thursday, January 28, 2010

Away on a Segway

Today I set my hands - and feet - on a remarkable piece of engineering...a Segway.

I had just stepped out of the library for lunch when I saw somebody floating past on two wheels. It looked like one of those toy scooters but the wheels were large, the pedestal was compact and the rider was certainly not making any effort to move along.

At first I thought it was one of those experimental robots that roll out from time to time from the engineering department, but then I remembered seeing pictures of this is some magazine...about somebody describing it as the eco-friendly answer to the world's commuting problems.

I sided up to the rider (turned to be a budding product designer) and asked if I could take a photograph but he just said, "Do you want to try it?".

I jumped at the offer! :)

Not sure of how the thing worked, I gingerly stepped on to it.The rubberised pedestal felt nice, but the handle seemed a bit wobbly. There were no intuitive buttons or dials - just a smiley round display indicating battery charge. The left handle seemed a bit like a throttle but I was told that instead of accelerating this is what helped you turn. I twisted it slightly, and sure enough, the rubber wheels silently turned to one side.

But the basic question still remained - "How do you move?"

"Just lean forward!", said the amused designer.


I tightened my grip on the handle and shifted my weight towards the front. The wheels slowly started moving, and sensing the angle of my tilt, it would roll faster or slower. To stop or decelarate, you just had to lean backwards.

By now I had gained some confidence (of the machine & the designer) and ventured down the 30-degree slope towards the cafe area. Halfway down the slope I tired turning the wheels to go back uphill and it sensed the shift in centre of gravity just perfectly. The simplicity of it all was just amazing!

Later I learnt that the Segway has been around since 2001-02 but its popularity has been impeded by the fact that it is just too expensive. In Japan costs around Yen 900,000 (Rs.4.5 lakhs - the cost of nice car or many-many-many bicycles!) and that its not permitted on the roads because it does not have the usual brakes or lights.

So until they change the laws and start manufacturing it in China, I guess we'll all find it more convenient to just walk or bicycle around.

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