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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wacky Business Owner Runs Company via Robot Proxy

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Richard Garriot, the owner of a Austin, Texas-based video-game development company, has found the perfect way to keep an eye on his employees when he’s out of office – a $15,000 robot called QB60.
Garriott, who founded Origin Systems back in the 1980s, a company best known for creating the Ultima franchise (which led to the popular MMO “Ultima Online”), first discovered his robot stand-in last year, when he and the woman of his dreams got married in a 500-year-old chateau in France. He wanted his mother to be by his side one one of the most important days in his life, but the wasn’t in the best shape for such a long flight, so he had to figure out a way to have her there, without having her fly. The solution came from a California company called Anybots Inc., which specializes in making avatar-like robots that can be controlled via computer. The futuristic gizmo looks a lot like a balancing segway, but it’s actually a lot more: an ever-present telepresence equipped with two cameras, a microphone and a speaker that can be operated from anywhere using a broadband Internet connection.

Photo by Ed Zavala/KXAN
So Garriot just put a laptop in his mother’s lap in Las Vegas, Nevada, and flew to France to get married, knowing everyone he cared about would be there, kind of. He even decked out the robot in a cardboard cutout of his mom and placed it right in the middle of the wedding, where everyone could see it. QB60 even made its presence felt on the disco dance floor, surrounded by the other wedding guests, who were asked to sign their names on the cardboard cutout. As they were writing, the real mom would say something like ‘Giggle, giggle, giggle, oh that tickles,’ and they would just stand back in awe. It was really one of the highlights of their fairytale wedding, but once the festivities were over, the nutty business owner had to find another use for his ingenious toy.

Since his wife’s business is in New York, Richard often has to travel there so they can spend some quality time together, so QB60, or “Mini-Me” as he calls the robot was the best way to participate in meetings and keep an eye on his staff when he’s not actually in the office. He can take control of the robot at any time and just creep behind his employees, watching their every move or engaging in conversations. “It is a huge advantage to just feel like you’re in the room with the team, even when you’re on the road. It has been a relief to the challenges of travel,” Garriot says.  “I love the fact that if I just sit the robot in the corner of a room, people forget that I’m there. You’re so disembodied, people forget that you’re present, so you then get to hear the real scoop.”

If you’re wondering how company employees actually feel about their boss’ crazy idea, they’re cool with having him around even when he’s not there, but they do joke about how the robot doesn’t understand personal space and how they sometimes have to shove the robot back away from them.

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