Apple's hiring of ex-Segway robotics expert fuels speculation of 'fantastic' future products

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited January 2014
A robotics expert who was a key figure behind the creation of the Segway personal transportation device now works at Apple, leading some to speculate he could be involved in a top-secret advanced product at the company.

Morrell
John Morrell, left, helped invent the Segway personal transporter. Now he works at Apple.


John Morrell was due to become the director of Yale University's Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, but he left his position last year for a position at Apple, according to Bloomberg. The fact that Morrell was apparently willing to turn down the position at Yale led some to speculate to author Ashlee Vance that he may have been wooed away by a "pretty fantastic" project in the works at Apple.

While at Yale, Morrell oversaw research on robots that were able to climb stairs and open doors. He was also an expert on interactions between machines and humans, a topic particularly key to the core philosophy of Apple.

Morrell has apparently been reunited with other members of the Segway team, including Doug Field, who previously served as the company's chief technology officer before joining Apple in 2008. But to date, there's been no outside indication that Apple is working on any Segway-type or robotics-oriented devices, which led Vance to admit in his report that it's possible Morrell may have "become just another member of a giant consumer electronics company."

According to Vance, most of the ex-Segway team that has found work at Apple works on Apple's existing flagship devices, while Morrell himself allegedly works in the Mac software group.

While there's no evidence that Morrell or anyone else are in fact working on secretive projects, Vance made the case that it could be in Apple's best interest to invest in a "moonshot" project, noting that with $137 billion in cash, the company spends only $3.4 billion per year on research and development. Some of Apple's chief competitors have garnered public buzz with their own "moonshot" products, such as Google's Glass and self-driving cars and Microsoft's handsfree Kinect controller.

"It would be a shame if a company with hundreds of all-stars, such as Morrell, isn't working on something more daring than the next gadget," Vance concluded.

Apple's legendary secrecy leads to all kinds of fanciful rumors about what the company could be working on inside its mysterious labs. Of late, speculation has centered on the prospect of an Apple television set or smart wristwatch accessory.

Years ago, rumors about Apple became particularly elaborate once it was revealed that the company had obtained the exclusive rights to a super-durable custom metal alloy known as Liquidmetal. Speculation saw Apple developing everything from iPhones to much larger MacBooks out of the material, but to date the only evidence of Liquidmetal in any Apple product is in the ejector tool used to remove SIM cards from older iPhones.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 69
    macbook promacbook pro Posts: 1,605member
    I would like to see Apple work on embedded systems but I suspect that will not happen.
  • Reply 2 of 69
    analogjackanalogjack Posts: 1,066member
    Hopefully the MacPro will be released before I can ride my iPod Touch to work.
  • Reply 3 of 69
    jungmarkjungmark Posts: 6,687member
    Behold the iWalker!

    WS spin: critics pan rumored iWalker. No one needs an automated walker.
  • Reply 4 of 69
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    Off Topic but it does involve Steve Jobs and Segway and gives a great insight into how Jobs works: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3533.html
  • Reply 5 of 69
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 1,917member
    Could be that he will have nothing to do with products but a lot to do with production.

    Robots don't commit suicide (or if they do, nobody cares).
  • Reply 6 of 69
    Apple is building an iRobot!
  • Reply 7 of 69
    stelligentstelligent Posts: 2,680member
    Google Glass, self-driving cars and Microsoft Kinect are all cool, interesting and innovative in their own ways. But let's not call them moon shots, let alone moon shots by these companies. First of all, a moon shot is one that has catastrophic consequences in the event of a miss. Second, all three technologies were developed and proven in the academic realm and/or other industrial skunk works projects because these companies initiated their own efforts. Third, if these technologies are moon shots, so too were the Mac and iPhone.

    Having said all this, it would be way cool to see Apple take a step sideways and launch something that is not principally *just* a computer.
  • Reply 8 of 69
    jungmarkjungmark Posts: 6,687member
    blastdoor wrote: »
    Robots don't commit suicide (or if they do, nobody cares).

    Not yet but in 1000 years it would be all too common.
  • Reply 9 of 69
    ankleskaterankleskater Posts: 1,287member


    The Segway is cool. But its cool factor really sank when its CEO died while falling off one.

  • Reply 10 of 69
    ankleskaterankleskater Posts: 1,287member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by winstein2010 View Post



    Apple is building an iRobot!




    I doubt the company iRobot would give up its name.

  • Reply 11 of 69
    stelligentstelligent Posts: 2,680member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by MacBook Pro View Post



    I would like to see Apple work on embedded systems but I suspect that will not happen.


    There was a time when an OS on a phone was considered an embedded OS. Strictly speaking, it still is. But most people don't associate embedded systems with consumer products.

  • Reply 12 of 69
    stelligentstelligent Posts: 2,680member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Blastdoor View Post



    Could be that he will have nothing to do with products but a lot to do with production.



    Robots don't commit suicide (or if they do, nobody cares).


    An interesting thought and not impossible. But there is considerable distance between development of manufacturing robots and ambulatory robots. Considerable. It would be like asking a Siri developer to do the UI for Maps. It's all programming to the uninitiated, but ...


     


    As for robots committing suicide, a historical joke in robotics is about programming a robot to push its own E-stop.

  • Reply 13 of 69
    j1334j1334 Posts: 4member
    Factory automation.
  • Reply 14 of 69
    fastasleepfastasleep Posts: 2,838member


  • Reply 15 of 69
    stelligentstelligent Posts: 2,680member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismX View Post



    Off Topic but it does involve Steve Jobs and Segway and gives a great insight into how Jobs works: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3533.html


    Thanks for the link. I'm very fond of that story and enjoyed reading it again. It is rare to be a fly on the wall of a room with Kamen, Jobs, Doerr and Bezos, and all of them wrong about the fate of a product.

  • Reply 16 of 69
    bdkennedy1bdkennedy1 Posts: 1,459member


    Apple hired CEO John Scully from Pepsi but that didn't mean Apple was going to make soft drinks.

  • Reply 17 of 69
    stelligentstelligent Posts: 2,680member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by AnalogJack View Post



    Hopefully the MacPro will be released before I can ride my iPod Touch to work.


    Your wish will come true this year. There is a pretty serious rumor going around (but not here?) that Apple has already approached some former MP users who have switched to Windows.

  • Reply 18 of 69
    apple ][apple ][ Posts: 8,650member


    Now this is a rumor that people can finally get excited by. Who gives a crap about cheap iPhones and other insignificant rumors that aren't likely to produce any exciting products, unless somebody is a fan of the race to the bottom method of doing business, like most other companies are.


     


    While other companies are "innovating", and making their next phone a half an inch larger than their previous phone, Apple will be working on the next set of groundbreaking devices that will blow everybody away and disrupt entire industries. In an office in Korea, in Samsung's HQ, people will be openly weeping when they see what Apple has released.

  • Reply 19 of 69
    anantksundaramanantksundaram Posts: 19,151member
    blastdoor wrote: »
    Robots don't commit suicide (or if they do, nobody cares).

    Actually, if one did -- on its own volition, somehow -- that would be HUGE news.
  • Reply 20 of 69
    carthusiacarthusia Posts: 561member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by stelligent View Post


    An interesting thought and not impossible. But there is considerable distance between development of manufacturing robots and ambulatory robots. Considerable. It would be like asking a Siri developer to do the UI for Maps. It's all programming to the uninitiated, but ...


     


    As for robots committing suicide, a historical joke in robotics is about programming a robot to push its own E-stop.



    I understand your point, but consider this: a major complication (if not THE major complication) with robotic manufacturing is how humans and robots work together. How will robots perceive and learn human intentions and vice versa are huge conceptual, theoretical and engineering questions. We are far from the point that robots can take over all of the manufacture of an Apple product, so how is safety, efficiency, and QA maximized in a human/robot production milieu?


     


    A major skill and, by extension, objective of Cook as CEO is to maximize product manufacture efficiencies. Project out a decade or two and consider how massive the markets for Apple products will be, especially smaller and harder-to-manufacture portable devices. Another thing about Cook is that he understands better than anyone on the planet, IMO, that although competitors may be able to copy some of Apple's UI ideas and form factors, it will be very, very difficult for them to copy high-efficiency operational and manufacturing processes that help yield their over-the-top profit margins. Apple's next big thing may not be a product, but very well be a set of revolutionary robot/human manufacturing processes.

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