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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 13:16 GMT
Will 'IT' change your life?

"IT" is a top secret new invention, backed by some of the biggest names in the American business world. IT is billed as being more important than the internet. But what is IT?

The web - always an incubator for rumour and speculation - is abuzz with talk of IT. So what is fuelling this furious debate? A secret invention which, its creator claims, will "sweep over the world and change lives".

George Bush
"I've seen the future and IT is great."
Some are quick to shout "Hype!", but IT inventor Dean Kamen is no latterday Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg.

President-elect George Bush is said to be among the bigwigs to have climbed the hill to Mr Kamen's hexagonal mansion.

The 49-year-old American was responsible for the $100m IBOT stair-climbing wheelchair, which was picked up by corporate giant Johnson & Johnson.

IT - or Ginger as his latest gadget is also known - boasts some equally august backers. Top Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, who helped launch Netscape, is on board.

Jeff Bezos, boss at bookseller Amazon, and Apple Mac guru Steve Jobs, have both given IT the thumbs-up - though are not letting on much more than that.

What we know about IT
IT could cost less than $2,000
IT fits in a duffel bag
IT takes 10 minutes to assemble
No lesser authority than the Harvard Business School Press has reportedly stumped up $250,000 for a book about IT, despite not being told exactly what IT is.

So why the secrecy? Mr Kamen - a recent winner of the prestigious National Medal of Technology - says he's staying tight-lipped for fear some jealous corporation will steal or "block" his brainchild.

Mr Kamen is vowing not to lift the lid on his invention until 2002, but has given the world some tantalising clues as to what the dickens IT is.

  • IT is said to be "so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it". Investors Credit Suisse First Boston reckon it could make Mr Kamen richer than Bill Gates.

    Girl with a rifle
    "Of course IT is safe."
    Could IT be low-tech? It doesn't have to be rocket science to make you rich. The humble, yet ubiquitous, Tetrapak milk carton made Hans and Gad Rausing into multi-billionaires.

  • Mr Kamen thinks IT is a great idea, but he fears others will take a more alarmist view. "The question is, are people going to be allowed to use it? [The product is] likely to run afoul of existing regulations," he has said.

    Could IT be dangerous? Not much of a clue. After all, the United States is regularly lampooned for embracing laws which frown on public smoking, but encourage people to tote guns.

    Dr Who's K9 dog
    "Am I barking up the wrong tree?"

  • "It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating."

    Could IT be a robot dog? Real life mutts are all of the above. Even Japan's mighty Sony corporation - inventors of the CD - are pumping money into developing robot animals. Those already in the shops proved a Christmas money-spinner.

  • IT "will profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide".

    TV chef Ainsley Harriot and a pizza
    "Sorry, IT only comes with anchovies."
    Could IT be food online? One internet wag has already suggested IT is a way of delivering food direct to surfers. Though fanciful, such an invention would certainly change our lives and please those netheads who hate interacting with anyone in real time, even pizza delivery riders.

  • IT is said to have had Amazon's Jeff Bezos "honking" with laughter. So it must be fun, right?

    A happy Playstation 2 customer
    "Is IT just a game?"
    Could IT be a games console? With pulses still raised by the recent launch of the Playstation 2 and the unveiling of Bill Gates X-Box, many net speculators are praying for another world-beating games machine.

  • IT is predicted to change the way our cities are built and force the existing built environment to be "retro-fitted" to accomodate the product.

    Could IT be a 21st century C5? The smart money is on IT being a new mode of transport, a theory strengthened by Mr Kamen's work on the IBOT and his penchant for commuting by helicopter.

    Woman on a scooter
    "Does IT come with a crash helmet?"
    Suggestions range from James Bond-style personal jetpacks to Star Trek transporters. IT may even be a Blade Runneresque hover car. All are a far cry from Sir Clive Sinclair's hapless C5 electric cart of the 1980s.

Of course, IT could always turn out to be nothing. Couldn't it? Send your e-mail suggestions to us at

Some of your suggestions so far:

Martin Milginney: "It's the cure for the common cold."

NS: "I think the answer is to be found along the lines of the recent Observer article that tells how the US military, among others, are seriously researching 'zero-point' energy. A potentially infinite source of clean energy would change so much it is difficult to grasp all the implications."

Rachad Challah: "It's a mind-reader robot which understands what a person wants without the person having to communicate his ideas."

Richard Granville: "I think Mr Kamen has invented perpetual motion. No need for fuel and virtually free energy!"

Mike Brennan: "A Back To The Future style hoverboard, no question about it. The basic technology has secretly been around for ages, so it looks like Kamen may have perfected it and made it safe."

Mark Hill: "A new type of engine for automobiles. More efficient, faster and safer then the existing combustion engine. Or something along the lines of the skateboard in 'Back to the Future' - The Hoverboard. Or a new 3D interactive online games console that allows you to feel, touch and smell the game."

Paul Sargeant: "I'd like it to be an energy converting device which turns household waste easily and cleanly into energy for the home."

Andy Nield: "Perhaps IT's a device for detecting when politicians are lying to us."

Mike Robbins: "I think Mr Kamen has invented a device which prevents Microsoft Word from doing things you don't want it to do. Such a device would have a global market."

Martin Heine: "It is a new ballot system and guarantees true democracy."

John Branigan: "I think IT is a new transport device. Thank God no more Silverlink!"

Mark B: "I may be getting a bit wild here, but has he invented a matter transporter? Beam me up Scotty and all that. It would fit all the comments, and the idea of the concept being raised would certainly have people 'honking with laughter'. Or, it could be an artificial boy / girl friend, replacing human versions which are often 'dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating'."

Robert Read: "An efficient rolling horizontal "escalator" as a replacement to pavement, as in the Sci-Fi book The Roads Must Roll by Robert A Heinlein."

Laura Porter: "IT's just an experiment in hype and viral marketing. Seems to have worked, hasn't it?"

Colin Morris: "This new 'revolutionary' product is an alternative to plane travel."

Marielle Druif: "It's a flying scooter."

Paul Schooling: "It is a bicycle... with some kind of add-on, such as an uphill drive, or an LED lighting system fixed to the frame..."

Olga Desnica: "IT is a helmet providing a very localised breathing environment to the wearer, which filters out any "noxious" smells and substances breathed out by the user. For example, smokers can enjoy their cigarette or pipe without "killing" their companions; lovers of garlic, hot curries and other strong lingering food will be free to use a lift; people who want to breathe in 'sea breeze' air, can do so, etc, etc. However, the smokers and the asthmatics were the primary taget."

Tony: "IT is going to be an 'autonomous form of transportation' that runs on hydrogen or a similar non-hazardous gas. IT is connected to the internet etc...etc...etc..... and is built to replace trains, buses, cabs etc...."

Conor Mullooly: "IT could be the Sterling engine Kamen's been working on for many years. It is said to be the size of a briefcase, costing around $1,500. The engine is dual purpose; water purifier/power generator."

See "Internet links" above right for Richard Gale's suggestion.

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02 Jun 00 | Health
Super wheelchair tackles stairs
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