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Vancouver engineer invents self-balancing unicycle

by Allan Brettman 
Monday May 25, 2009, 6:05 PM


Fredrick D. Joe/The Oregonian – Daniel Wood, co-founder of Focus Designs and inventor of the Self-Balancing Unicycle, demonstrates the battery-powered gadget outside his downtown Vancouver office. Wood, who created the company with his brother, Bobby Wood, is awaiting sales orders after the product became available about two weeks ago.
VANCOUVER — Off in the distance, a unicycle rolls around the ellipse that circles downtown’s Esther Short Park.

Nothing unusual there, though you might think of Vancouver as more of a meat, potatoes and bicycles-only kind of town. But there’s something different about this unicycle.

There’s a blocky-looking thing under the saddle. And the rider isn’t pedaling, yet the contraption is moving. And the rider is playing a guitar.

By the time the rider rolls into closer view, it’s clear that the unicycle is battery-powered. And it’s clear that the rider is doing his best to promote the wizardry of inventor Daniel Wood.

Wood, a high school dropout and self-taught engineer, invented the electric, gyroscope-packed, one-wheeled cycle to help launch a new company in downtown Vancouver.

The invention is known as the SBU — for Self-Balancing Unicycle — and offers the promise of taking some of the circus-stunt nature of the unicycle to the masses.

Fredrick D. Joe/The Oregonian – Daniel Wood (left), founder of Focus Designs and inventor of the Self-Balancing Unicycle, and David Martschinske demonstrate the SBU outside their office in downtown Vancouver
The SBU delivers on one-half of the equation — front to back balancing — but the rider still must figure out the essential left and right balancing that’s essential to turning and staying upright.

Nevertheless, Wood, a 30-year-old refugee from a Vancouver high-tech firm where he was laid off last year, has created a product that appears to have few parallels in the market.

The SBU

Inventor: Daniel Wood 
Owner: Focus Designs, co-founders Daniel Wood and Bobby Wood 
Base product: Conventional unicycle from Seattle Bike Supply, retrofitted with SBU equipment 
Construction site:Basement, 110 W. 13th St., Vancouver 
Web: focusdesigns.com

He’s spent more than two years developing and perfecting the design with this in mind: “I wanted to make something I would want to ride.”

There are other electric unicycles, and the two-wheeled Segway has shown the importance of gyroscopes in keeping a wheeled vehicle from tipping. But the SBU appears to be one of a handful to have combined the two features.

Now Wood and his partners need people to pay $1,599 apiece for an SBU in the midst of a recession. Four units are on order, all from people who have said they’re interested in being distributors.

Wood has gotten two technological gadgetry celebrities on the SBU — Adam Savage, host of the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters,” and Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway.

Savage contacted Wood just moments after he saw a story about the SBU on the Web site, gizmodo.com. “I gotta have one,” Savage recalled telling Wood in an e-mail.

Savage, whose program regularly features construction of contraptions, is a longtime unicyclist. He commuted on them when he lived in New York City and, to amaze his friends, he’d bounce down stairs on a unicycle or juggle while riding one.

So he was eager to try out the SBU when Wood and his friends arrived on the “MythBusters” set in January. He quickly was hooked.

“I love it!” Savage said in the phone interview. He keeps the SBU on the set.

A regular unicycle and the SBU are different enough that it’s an apples to oranges comparison, Savage said.

The biggest difference would be starting and stopping.

The SBU’s internal gyroscope senses, through the rider’s movement, whether he wants
to go forward, slow down or stop. Lean forward enough, and it can go faster — up to 10 mph.

A skilled rider can ride uphill and downhill as easily as on flat ground.

But it takes a skilled rider to make the SBU perform at all. First-time riders will spend much of their introductory moments sitting on the saddle, walking the SBU with one foot and making tentative attempts to roll with both feet on pedal-size platforms.

Most people can be up and going in 45 minutes, Wood said.

The Segway’s Kamen wasn’t one of them. While Wood was able to get the famous inventor on an SBU during a visit to Kamen’s house in New Hampshire during a robotics conference last year, the Segway inventor needed help to stay aboard.

Even Savage says the SBU’s commercial prospects are challenging.

“It seems to me a fairly niche market,” he said. “But someone had to do this. It just had to get done.”

— Allan Brettman; allanbrettman@news.oregonian.com

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