Skippy the stone skipping robot takes Sun Valley by storm

A robot, a lake and a whole world having fun

Something strange happened in the mountains around Sun Valley last week. Thousands of desk-bound, city-dwelling workers from across the globe descended on a small alpine lake and threw stones in it. Apparently the number one thing these people want to do with their time is indulge in a somewhat frustrating childhood game that is probably the leading cause of concussion among river otters.

For residents of and regular visitors to the Wood River Valley and its surrounds, this is a somewhat baffling concept. Why would you want to skip a stone across a pond when you could be mountain biking, hiking, white-water rafting, enjoying a schooner at Grumpys or throwing flies at unsuspecting trout? It appears that these thousands of stone-skipping aficionados don’t know what they are missing; they don’t know about Sun Valley. Because they aren’t actually here standing by this picturesque lake in the middle of … (nope – not saying), they’re sitting behind a computer screen in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Berlin, Bangladesh and over 93 other countries worldwide.

Enter Skippy, the stone-skipping robot. Dreamt up by creative agency, Eleven Inc., Skippy is a marketing initiative that plans to sting those workers bees till they just have to scratch that itch by packing their bags and heading to Sun Valley.

While the number one question among locals was where in the world is Skippy (there really aren’t many lakes in Sun Valley Resort with Devil’s Bedstead in the background), the number one question on the interweb was – is this for real? Well, after some exhaustive investigative reporting, Mrs. Sun can assure you it was (Skippy has been retired for the season after his 5 days in the sun – and rain).

Skippy began life as a clay target thrower who was modified into virtual reality by Eleven Inc.’s resident engineer MDavid Low. See how he came to life in this video:

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The robot was loaded into an RV, along with about 2,000lbs of stones, and sent off on a road trip from his birthplace in San Francisco to his Idaho mountain vacation. During his sojourn in Sun Valley he was kept company by Daniel Murphy, director of Interactive Production at Eleven Inc., and his team.

Two guys from San Francisco and a robot in Sun Valley.

“We were on site the entire time,” Daniel said when I chatted to him on the phone yesterday. “One person was continuously monitoring Skippy, making sure he was full of stones and not jamming, that type of thing. Then there was a cameraman - the weather changes so rapidly that we would have to adjust the camera regularly to make sure we were getting the most beautiful views of the area possible. Then I was usually there monitoring the social feeds. People were very engaged, on twitter specifically, and also on Facebook and through email – we were going back and forth with them in real time.”

So what actually happened when someone skipped a stone? ”Well it was all Skippy, it was all automated. We were just there to make sure it didn’t jam. The user would arrive at live video of the environment and sign-up to the queue. Then once it was your turn you could set your angle up or down and do a little gameplay to try and achieve maximum power, then you would see an animation of your settings and then watch your skip go live.”

So Skippy was doing all the hard work, while the team from San Francisco was just there to soak up the atmosphere, chat online (through a satellite system NASA would be proud of) and watch out for otters. ”There were these river otters at the lake – it would have been a PR disaster if one got hit,” Daniel said. “So we would switch a lever whenever one swam by and the servers would put up a Wildlife Crossing error message until the coast was clear again.”

I’m actually speechless. But it looks like Skippy did his job, and then some. Daniel informs me Skippy went viral. Three thousand people skipped stones across the lake in the five short days Skippy was in situ.

“In terms of traffic it blew our minds,” Daniel said. “We’re coming up on close to 500,000 page views to the site, with over 200,000 unique visitors.” Clearly there is an appetite out there for stones in Sun Valley (imported from San Francisco). “When we first opened up the line on Monday morning at 9am there were already 5 people waiting. I knew in my heart after the first hour it was going to be a pretty big success. We watched exponential growth happen through direct referrals on Facebook. Within 10 minutes we had 30 people waiting and after an hour it was close to 200. The line was packed the entire time. I knew, having done this for a while, that once you have that much positive response it’s totally going to snowball, and it did.”

The online media-sphere got on board quickly too, spreading the word through blogging sites such as Huffington Post, MSNBC and The Verge. “One German site drove close to 20,000 visits on the second day alone, we got traffic from 96 countries.”

While the skipping is over, one part of Skippy’s mandate is still live, the chance to win a “Sun Valley summer escape.” Head to skiptown.visitsunvalley.com and pack your getaway car with the top 10 adventures you want to experience in Idaho, then wait until July 31 to find out if you’ll be heading on a dream vacation.

What is Skippy’s future? “He might have the desire to throw snowballs in the winter,” Daniel said. “You never know. We had a lot of people begging to see him again. The desire is out there.”

My advice to Mr. Skippy? No. 5 is alive. Run Skippy, run!

Happy Trails…

Mrs. Sun

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