Whizkid Phillip Torrone
By Leander Kahney, Thu Jun 21 00:00:00 GMT 2001

He's too impatient to wait for technology to catch up with what he wants to do, so he invents it himself.

Years before cars came with built-in telematics systems, Torrone rigged his Mazda Miata with his own home-brewed wireless information system using a Palm Pilot and and a modified cell phone.

The 26-year-old's latest invention is an electronic scooter - the kind that were popular with kids but are now all the rage with adults - with its own wireless Net connection and a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation system.

Torrone fitted the scooter with a special holster on the narrow handlebars to accept his cell phone or Compaq iPaq PocketPC, making it, as he says on his Web site, "WAP-SMS-Web-PocketPC-email-cam-Java-.NET-Flash" enabled.

"It seems crazy," says Torrone. "But a couple of years from now, this stuff will be standard issue." Torrone's job title is software engineer for Fallon Worldwide, a trendy advertising company based in Minneapolis, MN, that does a lot of work for technology companies.

But because of his outgoing personality, insatiable gadget fetish, and an uncanny ability to look into technology's near future, Torrone is often put in front of new clients.

Fun with technology

"I'm a pitch monkey," he says.

At his previous job, Torrone built the first online bank entirely in Macromedia's Flash, the graphics and animation format. A tireless Flash evangelist, Torrone sits on the Flash advisory board.

Since moving to Minneapolis a year ago, Torrone's scooter has become his primary form of transport. "I just started going outside now that winter's over," he says.

The scooter knows exactly where it is at all times, thanks to the onboard GPS, and others will soon be able to track Torrone's movements via his Web site. The scooter allows him to stay in constant contact via e-mail or instant messaging, and helps him track the online auctions he's always involved in (he's an avid collector of new gadgets).

The scooter can stream music and video. And thanks to a digital camera, it can take and send pictures wirelessly. Torrone recently posted some photos taken during a ride around a local park to his Web site.

But unlike New York or San Francisco, scooters aren't yet trendy in Minneapolis. Torrone says he's the only person in town who uses a scooter to get around, let alone one bristling with expensive gadgets. "It's freakishly unpopular," Torrone says. "People point at me."

Adults riding scooters is bad enough. But a Net-connected scooter seems downright silly. Or is it?

Eccentric, or visionary?

Torrone points out that the celebrated inventor Dean Kamen is widely rumored to be working on a top-secret and revolutionary personal transportation device, code-named Ginger or "IT."

The device has been the subject of intense speculation in the world's media, and if the hype is anywhere near true - it's supposed to be a high-tech, self-stabilizing scooter - governments will start planning cities around it.

If Ginger/IT turns out to be a glorified scooter, and everyone is destined to get one, it will presumably need the kind of communication and navigation system Torrone is experimenting with. And so the system that attracts Minneapoiltes scorn, may soon become as common as a cell phone.

"He knows how to take existing technology, predict where it's going, and do it himself," said Beth Goza, a product manager with Microsoft's Mobility division. "He can predict where technology is going before the manufacturers can."

As usual, Torrone is just a little bit ahead of the times.

People also laughed at his Miata, which he outfitted years ago with a wireless video conferencing system, e-mail and Web access, a voice-activated navigation system and an MP3 audio player. This at a time before cars were equipped with telematics systems.

"Three or fours years ago I was putting this kind of stuff in my car and people thought it was crazy," Torrone says. "But now it's common. All this stuff is in my mum's car."

Torrone says his ability to see into the near future is like stepping into a time machine.

"Only I don't have to build the time machine," he says. "I just have to build the stuff."

"There's consumer appeal to the stuff I do," he adds. "It's not like Bill Joy - the robots are going to eat us all. It's consumer-friendly. People say maybe I can see us building that."

Since he was a kid, Torrone has had an insatiable desire to tinker. The first thing he did with his scooter was modify it to go faster. He's the same with his Pocket PCs, GPS receivers, cell phones and other devices.

"I void all the warranties, usually within five minutes," he says. "The first thing I do is crack them open to mess with them.

"I like to say 'you've got to break eggs to make an omelet,'" he adds philosophically. "I'm Captain Egg."

Gotta have the right tools to tinker

At all times, Torrone carries a "man bag," a sack of about electronic gadgets, including a couple of PDAs, and a home-made charger. Of all the devices PDAs he's owned, his favorite was the brick-proportioned Newton from Apple.

He loved the operating system, even though the Newton rapidly turned into a dead duck. Small computing devices didn't take off until the Palm Pilot, which Torrone thinks is technologically a step backwards.

Finally, Microsoft's PocketPC operating system and devices like Compaq's iPaq are starting to live up to the Newton's legacy - providing a truly mobile computing experience.

"The PocketPC is cool," he says. "It's great. It does absolutely everything. It's back to normal. Palm was a step backwards. I like sound and video and color, and I think most other people do too."

Torrone owns five iPaqs (which cost more than $500 apiece). He bought two himself and was given the rest. Microsoft lent him one of the early models but said he could keep it if he came up with some cool software to run on it. A couple of months later he turned up at a Microsoft promotional event with the Flash player for PocketPC.

"The stuff he does is great," says Microsoft's Goza. "He's not jaded at all. He likes to have fun. He doesn't worry about what other people think." Like Margaret Thatcher, the ex-British Prime Minister, Torrone doesn't get much sleep.

Thatcher claimed that four hours of sleep gave her the time to transform Britain during the eighties. Torrone gets even less than that.

"I take little naps," he says. "I'm more of a nap person. There's too much stuff to do. I seem to get a lot more done without sleep. "I took a nap at about eight this morning," he adds. "And I popped up like a piece of toast." Perhaps the lack of sleep inspired his next project: to turn himself into a human version of the game "Operation."

The game will be built in Flash on his Web site. Torrone plans to modify a force-feedback jacket designed for gaming that shakes in response to music, noise or other inputs.

But instead of sounding a buzzer when a player accidentally touches the patient's insides, the modified jacket will deliver a mild electric shock to Torrone. "When people mess up it shocks me," he says laughing. "It'll be fun to wear it around the agency for a bit."

Originally from the U.K., Leander Kahney now lives in San Francisco and is a reporter for Wired News as well as TheFeature.