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More than a wheelchair, the IBOT is on the move

November 26, 1999
Web posted at: 2:01 p.m. EST (1901 GMT)

by Bob Metcalfe, InfoWorld columnist


(IDG) -- Inventor Dean Kamen insists his IBOT is not a wheelchair. Nobody pushes you around in an IBOT. You wear it, like Kamen wears his helicopters.

Now, because this is InfoWorld, and I'm hoping to brighten your day, I hasten to point out that Kamen's IBOT runs on plenty of microprocessors. Of course, being post-PC-plus, it doesn't run on Microsoft Windows.

Mr. Roboto

The IBOT is amazing, more so even than Windows struggling to reboot. It's something you don't believe until you see it. It won a standing ovation at our recent Agenda conference.

Even more amazing than his IBOT is Kamen himself. He's famous outside computing. Before the IBOT and his helicopters, Kamen invented a portable kidney dialysis machine and intravascular stents. My very own father (Hi, Dad) is running around with Kamen stents holding open his two blocked arteries.

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Kamen is a terror. He'll have you in tears about his inventions, then rant about Windows unreliability, then recruit you into a robot competition to benefit kids, and next, well, his father helped start Mad Magazine -- Kamen is ... Alfred E. Neuman.

The IBOT was born one day as Kamen was in the shower thinking, "How can I use Pentiums?"

No, he doesn't recall what he was thinking, but that he stepped out, slipped, and whirled to catch himself from falling -- which led to the fundamental idea behind the IBOT. It's a self-propelled chair on wheels that knows, using gyroscopes and microprocessors, how to keep its balance.

Imagine the IBOT, looking like a sleek wheelchair, not with two big and two small wheels, but two pair of midsize wheels on a swivel. Imagine joysticking an IBOT as it carries you quickly along a beach.

Imagine approaching a curb or, worse, stairs. The IBOT's wheels automatically swivel up the curb or swivel repeatedly up the stairs.

Imagine sitting in a supermarket, hitting the IBOT's "stand" button and swiveling up onto two wheels to reach the top shelf. What must it be like for people who have lost their legs to again face the world standing up?

The IBOT is now in clinical trials, prior to approval by our Federal Drug Administration, so Kamen can't talk much about it.

Johnson & Johnson has invested $50 million with Kamen in developing the Independence 3000 IBOT Transporter. Availability by prescription is projected for 2001, at less than $25,000.

I've seen NBC's John Hockenberry throw a 25-pound bag to Kamen, who is sitting in an IBOT, which is balancing on two wheels. The IBOT detected the bag's heavy arrival and instantly regained balance by spinning its wheels. Only a replay shows the wheels making their moves.

In shoving matches, Kamen says, IBOTs win. They keep their balance better than humans do by using gyroscopes and microprocessors.

And because they have to be reliable, IBOTs don't do anything unless at least two out of three Pentiums agree on it.

Kamen is grateful for microprocessors, but only for a millisecond. Having exotic rechargeable batteries to power the IBOT through a strenuous day, Kamen laments that more than half the power is squandered on idling microprocessors. Intel?

Now, have you noticed that when somebody works on making systems usable by the disabled, they often make them more usable by everyone?

Well, Kamen in his 200-pound IBOT easily beats a triathlete up a 3,000-foot-long 10-percent grade.

We're all someday going to want some sort of Global Positioning System-guided, Internet-connected descendent of Kamen's amazing IBOT -- the next big thing not in personal computing but in post-PC-plus personal transportation.

Now go see and believe the IBOT on NBC Dateline.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973, but his Mom and Dad ask, "What has he done for us lately?"

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NBC's Dateline report on the IBOT
The Agenda conference
DEKA Research & Development Corp.
Dean Kamen's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) -- Robotics competition for kids
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