What’s all the hype around “IT”?

Some are saying it will change the world, but no one will say what it is

Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs says it will change the way cities are designed. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos says it's a "product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it." The two are among a handful who have actually seen "IT".

"IT," also known as "ginger," is the creation of Dean Kamen, an inventor, engineer, self-taught physicist, and entrepreneur. Kamen has won numerous awards and honorary degrees for his previous inventions, which he keeps in his hexagonally shaped house in New Hampshire. He also keeps a Porsche there, and a pair of helicopters, though for long trips he usually takes his jet. His inventions, including a personal insulin pump, portable dialysis machine and revolutionary new wheelchair, have earned him millions. But it's not the money that drives him. Kamen, who has been described as a Henry Ford meets Thomas Edison, says "I don't work on a project unless I believe that it will dramatically improve life for a bunch of people."

Ginger was supposed to be a secret, slated for release in 2002, until news of a book deal was leaked to Wired magazine. Harvard Business School Press is paying an advance of $250,000 (US) to Steve Kemper, an author who's been talking to Kamen for the last year and a half, for exclusive rights to publish a book about "IT." Harvard Business School Press doesn't even know what it is.

What is "IT"? Anyone who has seen it has signed a non-disclosure agreement, but there are a number of clues. Kamen's projects aim to help people; he hopes it will "profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide. It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities." Speculation has it that he's created an alternative form of transportation, especially useful in large Asian cities. We also know that in a meeting with Bezos and venture capitalist John Doerr, Kamen brought "IT" in two duffel bags, and put it together with screwdrivers and a hex wrench. Is ginger a motorized scooter?

Kamen's company, DEKA, has reportedly been developing the Stirling engine. First invented in 1816, the Stirling is a modified steam engine, capable of running on cheap, environmentally-friendly fuels.

One of Kamen's previous inventions may also offer a clue. The iBot is a souped-up wheelchair currently undergoing the approval process of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The iBot can go over curbs, roll through sand and gravel, climb stairs, and even lift its owner so that she might see others at eye-level. The key to the iBot is balance; it is fitted with gyroscopes and computers so that it has a faster reaction time than humans.

Most speculate that ginger is a new form of transportation -- small, cheap, efficient and computerized. Kamen claims his invention may have a big impact on "some billion-dollar old-line companies". Is he talking about the auto-makers?

Will "IT" change the world, or is this all just early investor hype? It'll be another year before we know. For now, we're left with quotes from the few who have seen it. Those like Steve Kemper, who says "it will sweep over the world and change lives, cities, and ways of thinking."

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