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Little wheels on campus

Men of the Johns Hopkins University, listen up! Your college president, the esteemed Dr. William R. Brody, has advice for how to conquer the campus social scene: If you want to cause a stir, junk that Jeep, sell that mountain bike and buy a Segway.

At least, that's Brody's opinion after trying out the eye-catching, next-generation transporter at Hopkins' freshman move-in day yesterday.

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"I'm sure it's a good way to attract women," joked the 59-year-old cardiac surgeon as he spun in place, excited as a kid on his first bike. "You can tool around in this and pick up girls."

Whether students follow that lead remains to be seen - based on interviews yesterday, it seems the Segway Human Transporter has a way to go before becoming a campus must-have. But this much is clear: for a college president seeking a high-profile way to greet freshmen, the machine is ideal.

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Brody and his wife, Wendy, have made a custom of welcoming students by riding around the freshman dorms on in-line skates or scooters. But this year, they decided to go cutting-edge, modeling the postmodern machines that Brody says may become a fixture on Hopkins' Homewood campus.

The machines, the brainchild of millionaire inventor Dean Kamen, have a design based on human balance. When the rider leans forward, sensors and gyroscopes tell the battery-powered motors to spin the wheels faster to keep the machine from tipping over. When the rider stands straight, the vehicle stops, and when the rider leans backward, the wheels spin in reverse.

The Segway, which can go 12 mph, is turned by a steering grip that tells one wheel or the other to move faster.

To some, the machines, which cost $4,950, represent the future of transportation: a clean, low-impact way to travel distances that are too long to walk but too short to justify a car trip.

To others, they are, well, silly - the vehicular equivalent of the Slinky or Rubik's Cube, and doomed to be about as revolutionary as the jet propulsion golf club (yes, there is such a thing).

After a short time on two Segways lent by the company, Brody and his wife - who, unlike President Bush, did not tumble on their inaugural ride - were firmly in the believer camp. The machines, Brody said, are ideal for a college campus like Hopkins, where the closing of internal campus roads has discouraged car use but where some trips can take a while to walk.

The school is considering buying a few of the machines for use by campus security and other staff, Brody said. He realized the Segways' price might be steep for most students, but he recommended the machines for those who could afford them.

"These things are amazing," he said. "It takes about two seconds to learn. They're very intuitive."

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The students and parents watching the Brodys as they zipped up and down the campus' winding paths were duly impressed. The machines seemed particularly peppy in contrast with the sport utility vehicles that lined up to deposit students' belongings (one student arrived with two Land Rovers, one driven by each parent, each packed to the roof).

But it was doubtful whether the college president would do for the Segway what Michael Jordan did for Nike. Several students said they could see the Segway's benefits but added, as tactfully as possible, that they worried about its high goofiness quotient.

"I wouldn't start using it until more people are using it, I guess that's the appropriate response," said Mike Kelly-Sell, a sophomore from Michigan.

Echoed Helena Orbach, a senior from Illinois: "I don't know. If everyone had one it would be easier. Not that I'm a follower or anything."

According to Segway officials, that has been the main challenge for the New Hampshire company: selling enough machines to make them acceptable to tempted consumers who aren't trend-setters themselves. The privately held company does not release sales figures, but the machine had a sales ranking of 1,054 yesterday evening on Amazon.com, where most Segways are sold.

The machine is making inroads on campuses, company officials said, with several colleges buying them for staff and offering discounts for students. The ITT Technical Institute in Chicago is offering a course about the Segway, said company spokeswoman Carla Vallone.

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Ronald J. Mullen, Hopkins' director of security, said he would love to have a couple Segways for his officers to use, especially the older ones who aren't in shape to ride a bike.

"It would provide something new that you're not used to seeing, so it would give more awareness of the officers, and that's something you want for security, awareness," Mullen said.

One might think the machines would not exude the kind of assertiveness that a security officer would want to exhibit while on patrol. But Hopkins freshman Tim Schwedes disagrees. He was one of a group of hikers returning yesterday from a seven-day, 51-mile orientation trek in the Appalachians who were greeted by Brody on the Segway as they trudged, sweaty and weary, across campus.

"It was great. It showed he doesn't take himself too seriously. He's not sitting on a throne," said the New Jersey student. "But it didn't take away from his authority. I could see riding up that he was a person of authority."

Others missed that. Some of the other hikers didn't even realize that the man talking to them on the funny machine was, in fact, the $677,564-a-year head of a major research university.

"That was the president?" said Laura DeMere of Michigan, after Brody had zipped on his way. "I thought it was just an orientation staffer."


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