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

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.


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.