thanks to fancy things like retractable wheels. it, hanging from the wall in front of the Wordplay.
Things became complicated. If I were on Puget Sound, my view instead would
“I want to get moving again, and I see Shack- be of the water rippling out beyond and into a
topus as the way of making that happen — kind backdrop of the mountain ranges of northwestern
of short-cutting that whole process,” he says, Washington, I imagine. But it also feels like I’m in
perhaps hopefully. “I’m looking for a big boat a starfighter.
that I can live on and do some world traveling.” It then gradually dawns on me: there’s a unique
feeling about being inside such a small craft that
The Allure of Human Power relies upon your own physical skills and wits to
When I started talking to Roberts for this story control. It becomes like an extension of your own
last summer, I immediately noted that his tech- skin, your own body. It becomes personal.
nomadic vehicles — the bikes and the boats — Maybe that’s the connection: mobile com-shared the distinction of being small vehicles munications, and vehicles like Roberts’ bikes
that relied mainly on people power. I wondered and this boat, both evoke a personal, emotional
what the appeal in that was for him. bond between themselves and the user. The
“I like the human scale of it. I find that when more physically invested the rider is in the direct
you cruise on a motorcycle or car, you’re really powering of the vehicle, the more personal the
anonymous. You’re just somebody passing journey becomes.
through on the freeway. Whereas, when I was “My goal is not to spend my life in the lab
on a bicycle, I was completely non-threatening,” building electronics,” Roberts says. “I got this
he said to me back then. “Back in the early 80s beautiful place in the woods. It looks like it
when I was [biking through] small towns in the ought to be paradise, but I’m just itchin’ to get
South, people would take me home. They weren’t moving again.”
worried about me. Also, it’s a lot more satisfying. The last time he felt that itch, he was living in a
Kayaking to an island is more exciting. There’s three-bedroom, ranch-style house somewhere in
an old saying: the smaller the boat, the bigger the suburbs of Columbus. There was no eBay, so
the adventure.” he was stuck with a bunch of unwanted stuff that
Afterwards, I mused for several months: what he couldn’t easily get rid of.
could be the thematic connection of a human- But one day, he left it all behind — there were
powered vehicle, or wind- and solar-powered still dirty dishes in the kitchen sink — and didn’t
one (as in the case of the Microships), to mobile even bother to lock the front door of his house.
communications technology? What was the He just pedaled away on an odd-looking bike
appeal of the two brought together? that he had slapped computers and mobile
When I meet the tech-nomadic pioneer in communications gadgets onto. “It was like I
person on a sunny afternoon in February 2006, I reached around the back of my head and hit
ask him about this. Beyond the fact that the two the reset button,” he says of that day when his
subjects have always interested him personally, journey began.
he cannot come up with some profound, satisfying
explanation for it all.
I climb aboard the Wordplay — or climb into The microship Wordplay:
it, to be more precise. At 5' 8", I’m much shorter 1. Retractable wheels facilitate transport.
and thinner than Roberts, so the inside doesn’t 2. The cockpit is covered with a bright red
feel “coffin-like” to me at all. There’s a lot of leg- canopy made of heavy waterproof fabric.
room. I fiddle with some of the levers and try to 3. Solar panels can provide thrust in an
relax myself into the hard seat. I look ahead, out emergency, otherwise it’s wind and sail.
the canopy. A compass is affixed to the top of the
dashboard, and beyond that I see a large marker board with technical-looking diagrams drawn on X