AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) - At a Downtown Austin game development company in Texas, the boss man is stiff, clumsy, a little bit scary and a whole lot weird. His given name is QB60, but to a man named Richard Garriott, he is known as "Mini-Me."
Garriott is the wildly successful game guru who co-founded Origin Systems in the 1980s and helped put the Texas capital city on the computer gaming map. The company, later acquired by Electronic Arts, was best known for the Ultima franchise that created a pioneering "massively multiplayer online role-playing game," called "Ultima Online."
Garriott is also known as a pioneering space tourist who booked a flight to the International Space Station in 2008.
His latest endeavor is another computer game company called Portalarium, which is developing a new project to be titled, "Ultimate Collector Garage Sale."
Typical of Garriott, that project and the employees who are working on it proceed under his watchful eye. Often though, his eye is elsewhere and that bothers the brain behind it.
So Garriott needed a proxy, a stand-in, a Mini-Me.
The answer to his prayers turned up in the answer to another prayer-of-sorts. Last summer, the man married the woman of his dreams at a 500-year-old chateau in France. He desperately wanted his mother to attend, but she didn't feel up to the rigors of international travel.
So the bridegroom bought himself a $15,000 gizmo from a company called Anybots, Inc ., a California outfit. That gizmo is a personal avatar, an ever-present telepresence, or what most of us would recognize as a robot .
It wanders around much like the two-wheeled self-balancing Segway personal transport machine. But it also does much more. Equipped with two cameras, a microphone and a speaker, it enables one to use a laptop computer to operate the machine from anywhere one can find a functional broadband Internet connection.
So, Garriott put a laptop in his mother's hands as she sat in comfort in Las Vegas, Nev. Then he put the robot, decked out in a cardboard cutout of Mom, smack dab in the middle of his big fat French wedding.
"One of the best scenes at the wedding," he said, "was my mother, you know, fully dressed at the end of the evening on the dance floor, on the disco dance floor, you know, with that nice parquet floor, us in our wedding gown and wedding attire, all of our friends dressed to the teeth, colored laser lights going all over the place -- and my mother here as the robot, jamming down with all the youngsters on the dance floor.
"They had no idea that there was really somebody driving and that it was my mother in Las Vegas who could see and hear and talk," Garriott went on.
"And so we had people going up and signing their name on her little cardboard cutout and only then were their ears right next to the speaker and so when they would sign on her [cutout], she would go, 'Giggle, giggle, giggle, oh that tickles.' And they would all, you know, kind of stand back," he said, doing a bit of giggling, himself.
But what do you do with an expensive robot once the matrimonial festivities are over? Garriott had a quick answer to that question.
"My wife and her businesses are up in New York," he pointed out. "My life and my businesses are here in Austin, Texas, but that means I go back and forth a lot. And so whenever I'm traveling, and especially if I'm up in New York, this is how I still participate on a daily basis here in our Austin office."
At any point in time, QB60, with Garriott at the controls up in New York, quietly slips up behind an employee, parks itself and begins to stare. Sooner or later, the "boss" will speak. The employee speaks back and the next thing you know, a conversation is under way.
Other times, Garriott will sit in on employee meetings in QB60's body.
"A great part of successful collaboration comes not when you're having something to discuss," Garriott said, "but just hearing what other people are discussing.
"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."
It's also been a relief to Portalarium's bottom line.
"In this era where people need to travel a lot more for work," said Garriott, "and also at the same time, we're trying to cut down on expenses, this kind of technology is definitely a wave of the future."
And from the point of view of this boss, the robot is not only cost-effective; it's also fun and practical.
"The Internet is now ubiquitous," said Garriott. "High-speed Internet allows video conferencing. The technology of a self-balancing system like a Segway is clearly something that even school kids do in robotics competitions.
"So this is the kind of technology that has really, truly come of age and this is a great way that this can be packaged can be put together for the service of humanity."
Yeah, but what do the employees think?
"We joke about the fact that the robot doesn't understand personal space," reported associate game producer Susan Kath.
once in a while, I have to reach out and shove the robot back away from me," she laughed. "But it's actually really cool and strange and a lot like just having him here."
Yes, it is like having Garriott there in the office, except when it's not.
"I love the fact that if I just sit the robot in the corner of a room, people forget that I'm there," he said.
"You're so disembodied, people forget that you're present, so you then get to hear the real scoop," he observed through the speaker on the crown of QB60's plastic head.
There was a smile in the voice, but the robot just sat and stared.
A moment later, Mini-Me spoke again.
"Kill all humans," it intoned. Everyone in the room laughed, nervously, and went back to work.
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