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Calgary’s Next Economy: Portal Bots is bringing live game action to your home

Chris Hall had opened his latest virtual reality brick-and-mortar location in Winnipeg on March 3, 2020.

Seventeen days later, the COVID-19 lockdown was on.

“I went from businessmen to daddy daycare overnight,” said Hall, co-founder of the company Portal Bots.

“An industry that’s not great for a pandemic is something where you put something on your face and then someone else puts it on their face.”

Hall, who has been in the VR biz since 2016 had to, like many businesses, pivot to stay alive.

He’d been experimenting with these tiny robots that could be used for a laser-tag-type game. What made it appealing was the tiny bots could be controlled with an app or on a tablet. Users could keep a distance.

“I thought, ‘this is amazing. This is a great social distance activity; I can have an arena in the Exchange District where my business is, people drive these robots around shoot each other – it’s kind of like live-action Mario Kart.”

When the full lockdown was on, and people could no longer gather at the arena, he sought another solution.

If these tiny robots could be controlled by computer, could they be controlled via a low-latency connection from people’s homes in Winnipeg – or even further afield.

“What Portal Bots is, is me building an arena, coming up with processes and automation to be able to marry the two methods together, and it’s created this really engaging entertainment that people can do in the comfort of their home,” Hall said.

Problem, meet solution

The pandemic created a gap in his business. It was one where being socially distant was critical. When no contact was allowed, Hall said he explored the opportunity to once again fill that gap.

It only served a certain market segment, however. Hall said he needed to find more problems where Portal Bots could be a solution.

He zeroed in on distributed business teams – aka, people working from home.

“All sorts of companies like this, they’re interested in cool things to do for team building, entertainment, and bringing people together. The pandemic made that really difficult,” Hall said.

It’s a simple solution, too. He equated it to an IT worker taking over your computer when providing support from a different location.

You connect to the computers at his arena location. There’s about 30 milliseconds of lead time between a user control and seeing the bot in action. He can maintain that speed for anyone within 2,500 kilometres of Winnipeg. Hall said that’s a 200 million person reach.

It does require a free software download.

Growing beyond Winnipeg

Hall has built a few tech businesses, though he concedes, he’s not a tech guy. They’ve been quite small scale, he said, never reaching beyond the Winnipeg area.

“I just didn’t have the skills or didn’t have the know-how to be able to push them any of them sort of past being a Winnipeg-based business,” Hall said.

When Portal Bots emerged, he thought this was a business he could scale. He was going to need some help. That’s where the participation in Platform Calgary’s Junction Program comes in.

He said he’s now learning from the ground floor up on how to build a successful “playbook.”

Portal Bots is a good model, Hall said. But not everyone wants to battle with robots. The breakthrough he made in creating a world where people could participate online with low-latency connections is where he sees even greater potential. Maybe a robot-assisted escape room from the comfort of one’s home, Hall said.

“There’s a huge opportunity there, I feel, and a lot of entertainment is coming out with that in mind right now,” he said.