Winnipeg tech startup lets friends battle with real-life robots from home


Portal Bots, the brainchild of Winnipeg entrepreneur Chris Hall, looks and feels like a video game, but make no mistake, it’s real. 

Just open a laptop from wherever you are, log in, and suddenly you’re in control of a real-life four-wheeled destruction machine, equipped with a camera and — of course — a laser. 

“I think it’s the perfect pandemic lockdown entertainment thing that’s social and fun and strategic and pretty cool,” Hall told CBC News.  

“You can be online, log in to our computers and drive these robots around with your friends or mortal enemies.” 

Like your average PC game, you use the mouse to look around and shoot, while using the keyboard to move around. The shift key even gives you a speed boost. All the while, you can trash talk your friends if you’ve got a headset and microphone.  

Portal Bots owner Chris Hall sits behind his command centre, which overlooks his robot arena in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. (Lyza Sale/CBC News)

A pandemic pivot

In late 2016, U.K.-born Hall opened Winnipeg’s first virtual reality entertainment business, called The Portal. 

“My interest is entertaining people,” Hall said. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he loved being in the thick of it, joshing around with guests while guiding them through their virtual gaming experience. With help from his British accent, he wouldn’t hesitate to mock people when they were “rubbish.” 

But when the pandemic hit, it was suddenly unsafe for people to share virtual reality headsets, so he turned to laser tag robots, which are manufactured by Hong Kong drone maker DJI.

He bought six of them, which can be controlled from as far as 2,000 kilometres away, and zip around his Exchange District arena at speeds up to 13 km/hr.  

WATCH | Portal Bots allow you to remotely control a robot:

The pandemic forced a Winnipeg entrepreneur to pivot from virtual reality to remote robot battles, and now he’s laser-focused on building it bigger. 2:45

“The idea was originally that people would come into the space and they would be able to use tablets and drive around,” Hall said. 

“And then lockdown came.”

He then wondered if there was a way to connect the robots to people’s home computers. And it turned out there was — a remote gaming software product called Parsec.

Now, as far as he knows, he’s the only one in North America who’s brought remote gaming software and real-life robots together to do something like this.

A robotic future

Hall says Winnipeg turns out to be a prime locale for the business, since it’s pretty much smack dab in the middle of the continent — meaning people can play from almost anywhere in North America. 

It costs $42 to control two robots for 40 minutes. The types of games range from races, to free-for-all battles, to capture the base, to more teamwork-oriented challenges.

As for the future of Portal Bots post-pandemic, Hall’s joined the founders’ program at local tech incubator North Forge, where he’s working on how to make his unique mix of remote gaming and real-life robots resonate in the growing esports and remote gaming industry.

Eventually he’d like to see people all over the world pay to battle his robots. 

“Being the first to do something means that I’m telling people they need more live action robo-wars in their life,” he said. 

“And sometimes it’s hard to get that message across, but that’s what I’m working on right now.” 

The Portal Bots arena lets up to six people battle robots from home. (Lyza Sale/CBC News)

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