Remembering Nike Chalkbot: Five years ago, a project for Tour de France had a lasting impact on the Portland startup scene

We still talk about Chalkbot a lot. Sort of in a “remember when” kind of way. Not about the technology. Or how hard the project was. Or the incredibly inane logistics. We talk more about its legacy. About the people. And about those it continues to affect and inspire, even today.

For those of you going “Chalk-what?” allow me to introduce you to Chalkbot, a Nike campaign for the Tour de France in 2009, brilliantly executed by a contingent of folks from Wieden+Kennedy’s Portland office, among others. Chalkbot was a robot. That could receive text messages—messages of inspiration—and then “paint” them in chalk along the route of the Tour de France.

But more importantly for Portland—and personally for me—Chalkbot was part of the inspiration for PIE—and it continues to be one. It was the spark that kindled the formation of then Gorlochs, now Portland’s Uncorked Studios. Who also took up residence for a brief time in the coworking space they inspired. And it was part of the inspiration for Oregon Story Board, an organization that hopes to foster equally unique and inspiring ways of changing the world of storytelling.

It’s the five year birthday of Chalkbot. And to celebrate, the original team has decided to give us a little peek into the behind the scenes on the project.

The Chalkbot was a seminal piece of work in advertising because it drew insight from an ages-old tradition and modernized it for the purpose of raising awareness for a cancer foundation. On the world’s largest athletic stage, the Livestrong brand could tell their story through the words of individuals whose lives had been impacted by cancer. For Nike and its advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, the Chalkbot proffered the real time opportunity to connect emotionally beyond the barriers of a TV commercial.

For those of us who worked on the project, it changed perspectives on what it meant to build a product that integrated hardware, software, athletes, and a large event. It made all other work seem meaningless. For a three-week period in the summer of 2009, the world revolved around this machine and the messages it printed on country roads.

Take a walk down memory lane with the team. And wish Nike Chalkbot a happy fifth birthday.

[Full disclosure: I am the cofounder of PIE and the cofounder of Oregon Story Board.]

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