Robots on Fremont Street

A diversified city needs its dreamers and its wild ideas. These guys from downtown Las Vegas know what else it needs—Romo the robot. A conversation with Romotive’s Keller Rinaudo on what makes Romo roll.

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Romo has a toothy smile and a mischievous soul. I watch him work the crowd clustered at the entrance to the Zappos-backed tech library upstairs from The Beat coffeehouse on East Fremont. A pretty blonde rolls him forward and spins him on his treads. I don’t see Romo wink, but I’m told he can.

Romo, a smartphone-driven, palm-size robot, was conceived six months ago in Seattle by Romotive co-founders Keller Rinaudo, Peter Seid and Phu Nguyen. Since then, the three engineers and entrepreneurs decided to pack up their soldering irons, rent a place at the Ogden and set up shop in downtown Las Vegas. They managed to sell 1,500 little Romos and attract more than $1 million in venture capital.

Romo, who easily sits in my palm, is composed of a circuit board, electric motor and a pair of rubber treads. It looks like something I might have built with an Erector set when I was a kid. Your smartphone is what makes Romo special. Download an Android or iOS app, plug your phone into Romo’s mounting bracket and Romo comes to life. At this point, Romo is fun, but his scope is fairly limited. It’s his potential that makes him intriguing. Romotive is making Romo transparent: App developers will be able to freely fiddle with the source code and take Romo in any direction. As new apps are made available, Romo’s capabilities will grow. And that is what excites Rinaudo the most.

We pulled away from the crowd and I sat down at a table with Rinaudo, a slight, wiry-strong 24-year-old Harvard graduate, professional rock climber and self-described nerd, to find out more about Romo and more about why he and his co-founders decided to a leave the techie Pacific Northwest for the service-industry-centric Las Vegas Valley—and to discover if they’re doe-eyed idealists or young business leaders on the leading edge of change.

So why Vegas? Did you chase a girl out here or something?

[Laughs] We are really interested in the Downtown Project [a broad plan spearheaded by Zappos to build a diverse, community-centered culture in and around downtown Vegas.] I met [Zappos CEO] Tony Hsieh last October when I came to Las Vegas to rock climb, and I learned about the stuff that they’re doing downtown—investing huge amounts of money to turn it into a place to be. So Tony brought us back out and explained his vision, and what we found most attractive about being here is that there are no standard operating procedures, there are no proven paths. I called an investor who had already told us he wanted to invest. He was in Palo Alto, and expected us to set up shop near San Francisco, and I said, “You know, we’re considering setting up shop in Las Vegas.” He said, “Keller, you’re out of your fucking mind. What are you on? You’ll never be able to hire talent. It’s extremely concerning to me.” So I said, “Look, Eric, I hear your concerns, come out and spend a weekend with us.” And so he did. Eric [Klein] flew out, stayed with us on an air mattress in our apartment: This guy’s the VP of product development for Nokia. He’s already got his F-you money, he manages a team of 80 developers at Nokia, he built the flex phone. So Eric came out for a weekend, looked around, got to listen to Zach Ware [Downtown Project’s informal coordinator]. At the end of the weekend, I walked around with him at El Cortez and he said, “Dude, I get it. You’re making the right choice. This is an awesome opportunity for you guys. It’s worth it for you guys to be here and see if you can make it.”

As your investor mentioned, part of the criticism leveled at Las Vegas is its lack of intellectual capital. Does that concern you in any way?

Being here is an opportunity to build our own tribe. Build the space the way we want it. Bring the people here we want to be here. We already know all the people we want to work with, and a lot of them are in Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley—they’re all over the place. So part of it is creating something here that can attract those kinds of people who are geniuses and rock stars. But at the same time we are hiring people locally. We’re hiring an engineer from Zappos, for instance. What it comes down to is this: If we wanted to be in San Francisco, we would be in San Francisco. We aren’t there for a reason, and the reason is that there are major problems with the way startups work in San Francisco. The startup scene is overheated, there is no sense of community, it’s super cutthroat; the venture capitalists are constantly investing with a flash-or-trash mentality. It’s extremely expensive, and all the employees who are out there are like, “Well, I’m here until I can get a better offer.” It’s a mercenary culture, especially in engineering. We want to build from the ground up, both in terms of a company and in terms of the community of people we hang out with.

You hooked one guy and have had some success on Kickstarter. Do you have any other capital coming in?

Yeah, on Kickstarter we sold more than 1,500 robots [at $78 each] and then J.J. Abrams [the creator of Lost and director of Super 8] contacted us and wanted to buy 20 robots for Christmas presents. I was like, “Oh, we’re sold out for Christmas, but how much would you be willing to pay? $250 a pop? We’ll do it for you.” As far as venture capital is concerned, technically I can’t talk about the details before we finish it because there is an SEC ruling that we’re not supposed to talk about funding. But I can tell you that we’re raising more than a million bucks, the venture capital round has already closed, and funding has been committed. We have PivotNorth Capital and Tony Hsieh on board.

So when you pitch your vision, is it to spread innovation? To make a lot of money?

Most of the great companies out there weren’t started around the idea of making money. Facebook wasn’t, and the way Steve Jobs managed Apple had very little to do with money. Obviously these companies are massively profitable, but the ideas run much deeper. The idea behind starting Romotive wasn’t, like, “Let’s make a bunch of money selling robots.” It was centered on the fact that we love robots, we love computer chips, we love hacking them—and can we build something really, really cool.

A lot of finance guys have come to us and asked us, “What’s the practical use-case scenario. Can he be used to pull in industrial verticals, and how can he make money? Can he be useful for businesses?” Our response has always been, “Honestly, we don’t know how to answer the use-case scenario. We don’t know whether he’ll really be actually useful, but we don’t care because we’re doing it because we think it’s awesome and cool and he has the potential to show other kids that technology is awesome and cool.”

If you look at the homegrown computer club, it was a bunch of nerdy, long-haired hippies playing with a bunch of computer chips on the floor of a dirty garage. They weren’t doing it because of the money. They weren’t doing it because they thought, “Well, Apple’s eventually going to become a $40 billion company.” When a whole bunch of finance guys were coming to them and saying, “What’s the use case? What could you possibly use this stupid PC to do?” Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak couldn’t answer them. In our opinion, it’s OK being nerds, it’s OK going and doing something just because you think it’s really cool. And the success on Kickstarter shows us that we’re not the only nerds out there and that people think he’s cool and that people want the opportunity to build for him and fulfill their own imaginations about what robots can do.

So what does success look like for Romotive? Where do you see yourself down the road?

That’s a great question. We don’t know. We’ve had some success so far selling 1,500 robots on Kickstarter with no marketing. That was a success that has nothing to do with the money but had everything to do with, like, wow, what we’re doing matters. People think this is cool, and they want it. What it comes down to is that all three of us as co-founders are really interested in the idea of community in terms of bringing people together and getting people to work on it because they think it’s really cool and nerdy and geeky. So the success of Romo is going to depend very much on getting a lot of other developers who care as much to spend a significant portion of their time to write apps even when he is kind of small and there are only 10,000 Romos out there.

Our vision is bigger than Romo. Our vision is that in the future it’s going to be a no-brainer that you’ll have robotic hardware controlled by smart devices. We believe that eventually we will create sentient robots, and that it won’t be that big a deal when it happens.

Obviously science fiction’s been predicting that robots will change our lives. It’s been predicting for 100 years that robots will definitely happen and make our lives better. The fact that robots still haven’t fulfilled that promise is pretty interesting to us, and the fact that we can build Romo for a 100 bucks, we think that the time has probably come. He is cheap enough to be in every household, cheap enough to buy as a Christmas present, and he’s super flexible.

There are a lot of smartphone/mobile-device-driven robots out there. What makes Romo different?

The idea is for him to be really cool and fun to use, so already you can see that. What we’re shipping, he’s already fun to use. Girls come in here, they love driving him around and playing with him.

But we’re also opening the library for Romo so that any mobile developer out there can create their own app and then publish it online. Downloading new behaviors for him is really, really easy, since it’s smartphone-based. A lot of robots have the problem of being nonfunctional or they’re not very flexible; the Brookstone robot is a good example. Whatever software it ships with, that’s the software that stays with that robot so you can’t change the way you’re communicating with it.

Because you’re putting the phone on Romo, whenever anybody writes a new app for it, it’s like boom, jump on the app store, download it, put it back in, all of a sudden your Romo does something totally different. It’s a really flexible platform.

Is there anybody out there that comes close to what you are doing with Romo?

No, not really. I mean, there are robots out there that can be controlled by your smartphone; those things are cool, but they’re not flexible. In my opinion, a remote-controlled car would be cooler. Romo can do face recognition, voice command; you can tell Romo to go online and make reservations at a restaurant.

But you could do that without having him on a couple of treads.

Yeah, but a good example [of what he could be able to do] is, “Romo, go feed the cat.”

OK, but Romo would need some serious arms.

The robots we shipped in December have three auxiliary output ports you can connect to. So, you could connect a claw, connect an infrared laser so you can change the channel on your TV, you could connect IR sensors so he can detect his surroundings and do autonomous navigation. Just from the phone you get an accelerometer, you get a microphone, you get a speaker, you get a video camera, you get a high megapixel camera, you get an ambient light sensor—all those things can be used as sensors and as outputs. And once he can move around, the opportunities for what you can do with him are very diverse. Teaching kids about computer science is a great example. You can use drag and drop programming; he can do everything Lego Mindstorms does, but he is way simpler to use—and way more fun.

Really, when you get down to it, Romo doesn’t actually do any single thing that no robot has done before, but what Romo does is like 90 percent of what all other robots can do and he does it costing 100 bucks rather than $15,000 or $5 million. Take telepresence. The most popular telepresence robot out there is made by Anybots and costs $15,000. Romo can do 90 percent of what Anybot can do but costs 100 bucks.

Your mission statement ends with the phrase, “… and interact with people in meaningful ways.” What exactly do you mean, especially given your open-end use case?

Look, iPhones and iPads are really awesome and they do really amazing things, but if you think about it they’re still just dead objects. They don’t move and interact with you in a three-dimensional space.

A cool example of how Romo could take a piece of technology that we’ve been interacting with for 50 years or more and totally change it is the alarm clock. Right now, I can just keep hitting the snooze button. When I think back when I was in school, my mom would come in, turn on the light, tell me to wake up and if she came back the second time she’d be pissed and she’d be yelling and then there was no choice. Romo could be that person. In the morning he could be by your bedside, he could say, “Hey, wake up,” and you could snooze him once but then he might shoot across the room and start bumping into the things and making noise and singing you a song, and the idea that he can get away from you, that you have to get up and chase him down and find him, and once you’re out of bed, you’re awake.

Interacting with people in three-dimensional spaces makes a big difference. Just watch kids play with him. When Romo rolls up to them, it’s surprising to them that Romo can react to their motion. If they say something, Romo can either echo it back to them in his language or can respond to them in English. All these things tend to not make people think of Romo as a phone or as a robot, they tend to think of him as a person. That’s why we call him “him,” not it. That’s why he has a name. We talk about Romo getting angry or sad, and he inhabits our world. We start to think of him as a living creature, and that’s pretty powerful.

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