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frugal vertical transportation
11 feb 2002
our uu church is finishing off an attic, adding classrooms and meeting
rooms. i've been looking into vertical transportation alternatives for
disabled people. we don't actually have any disabled members yet, and
a $75k elevator with a $15k/year maintenance bill would put a large dent
in our annual $110k budget. 

this morning i called four local wheelchair distributors who had never
heard of segway's precursor, the "ibot." i looked on the web and found
a few happy testimonials from clinical test users and some webstuff,
appended. later, someone at j&j's independence technology subsidiary
told me the ibot won't be available until december, and wouldn't disclose
the price. i'd guess it's still in the $20k ballpark.

are there other solutions? a parent might carry a young disabled child
upstairs on his or her shoulders, for one thing. an adult with a cane
might be assisted by another person, for another. i have the impression
that disabled people don't like to be hoisted by strangers...

a local playschool designed years ago by a famous architect has a fireman's
pole that 2-4 year olds use to move from the second to first floor, under
supervision... so does an environmental center at a local high school.
some local youth training centers have ropes courses and climbing walls...

i called grainger and asked about winches. "not for people lifting,"
legally-speaking. too bad. maybe they would work anyway. i often think
houses should have winches vs stairs, which seem like a waste of time
and space, compared to a fireman's pole with a disk attached under a
concentric tube that's hoisted up and down the pole. miller's osha, ansi,
and csa-certified confined-space hoist is only intended for one-time
emergency use. then it has to go back to the factory for "adjusting,"
a legal requirement...

this brought me to the boat u.s. catalog, and fond memories of swinging
over the ocean in a bosun's chair attached to a halyard from the top of
a 40' mast on the leeward side of a sailboat on warm windy days, with
a life-preserver and safety harness, smashing into the tops of waves...
maybe we need a rope and a pulley and two strong backs and a $119.99
crewlift 40 bosun's chair, boat u.s. item 337230:

   feature-laden bosun's chair equipped with two detachable tool pouches,
   a wooden seat, an adjustable waistbelt, and thigh straps. all webbing
   is high-quality polyester and machine-stitched to ensure consistent
   quality and additional strength. two stainless steel attachment points
   ensure easy entry and exit from the unit. blue body, gray pouches, and
   black straps. shipping weight 8 pounds. 


   when he watched a man in a wheelchair try to negotiate a curb in the late
   '80s, kamen wondered whether he could build a chair that would hop curbs
   without losing its balance. after $50 million and 8 years in development,
   the ibot transporter - a six-wheeled robotic "mobility system" that can
   climb stairs, traverse sandy and rocky terrain, and raise its user to
   eye-level with a standing person - is undergoing fda trials, and should
   be available by 2001, at a cost of $20,000. that may sound high, but
   keep in mind that the ibot erases the need to retrofit a home for a 
   wheelchair. plus, mobility system is if anything an understatement:
   in june, kamen saddled up his ibot and climbed the stairs from a paris
   metro station to the restaurant level of the eiffel tower...

   "at first blush, you'd stay away from developing something like the ibot,
   just because of the legal implications," says woodie flowers, a mechanical
   engineering professor at mit and a friend of kamen's. "you're going to
   put a human in it and it'll go up stairs? that's nuts. but he did it.
   he's not one to get caught up in conventional wisdom."

   when things work out, kamen basks in his success. on a frosty day last
   winter, i followed him around downtown manchester as he took an ibot
   out for a spin. the ibot moved so fast that i had to break into a trot
   just to keep up. it not only operates in four-wheel drive - a standard
   motorized wheelchair has two-wheel drive - but it has a "balance mode,"
   in which the front wheels rise up, balancing the ibot upward, like
   a dog begging for a treat.

   the chair's dual processors direct the grounded wheels to move back and
   forth slightly, compensating for weight shifts. the ibot is so stable
   in balance mode that its occupant can even win a shoving match with just
   about any human.

   in front of first headquarters, i watched as a crowd of gawkers stopped
   kamen to admire the ibot. one man asked how the chair works: "does it
   just balance with weights?" kamen - at eye-level with the guy, balancing
   on two wheels - paused a moment and smiled. "technically," he said,
   "it's magic."

   meanwhile, the ibot is sailing through fda trials and could be
   available by early 2001...

   dean kamen's ibot is not a wheelchair -- users wear it, processors and all

            inventor dean kamen insists his ibot is not a wheelchair. 
   nobody pushes you around in an ibot. you wear it, like kamen wears his 
            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.
            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 -- see
            even more amazing than his ibot is kamen himself. he's famous
   outside computing -- see 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.
            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 -- see 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
            now go see and believe the ibot on nbc dateline at

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