By his own admission, Henri Seydoux was a terrible journalist. The French technologist started his career in the late 1970s as a writer for Actuel, a Rolling Stone-like magazine in Paris, but felt underpaid and underqualified. “Then I did something typically French,” he says. “I got my girlfriend pregnant.” In need of money, he learned to program on an Apple II and began writing software for insurance companies.
Thirty years and a number of startups later, Seydoux is chief executive officer of Parrot (PAOTF), which he founded in 1994. The Paris-based company is publicly traded—it’s valued at about $390 million—and specializes in voice-controlled devices, namely hands-free cell phone kits for cars. In recent years he has wanted to branch out. “In the fashion business, every six months you redo everything,” says Seydoux, who in the early 1990s provided seed money for the shoe designer Christian Louboutin. “Most startups do one product. Palm, BlackBerry (RIMM) —a lot of companies never find another product.”
Parrot’s new act is the AR.Drone, a high-tech hovercraft. The drone is a battery-powered, two-foot-long quad-rotor helicopter, with a foam enclosure to protect the gizmo from run-ins with walls or trees and four spinning blades that provide lift and steering. Inside the plastic fuselage is a Wi-Fi transmitter that connects the drone to an iPhone or iPad, which serves as the remote control. Two cameras provide a view of either the airspace in front of the drone or the ground below it and transmit the image onto the phone’s screen, so a user pilots the device as if he were onboard.
The AR.Drone retails for $300 and since its mid-2010 launch has been one of Brookstone’s top five bestsellers, according to the retail chain’s CEO, Ron Boire. “It’s a hit product for us,” says Boire.
Parrot has opened up its software to outside developers, allowing them to build new applications for the drone. Some have created augmented reality games, which overlay graphics on the drone’s video feed. A kid flying the drone in a park, for instance, might see fields of grass transform into a virtual obstacle course on his iPhone screen. Researchers, too, have found uses for the drone. Jake Forsberg, a programmer for a startup building lunar explorers, used the AR.Drone to test motion-tracking software. Because the drone automates basic functionality such as maintaining horizontal stability, “I was able to focus on the more interesting problems,” says Forsberg.
Seydoux doesn’t code anymore, but he makes a point of sitting among his engineers and programmers—another cue he took from the world of haute couture. “Even if you are a very famous fashion designer, you still sit down with scissors and fabric,” he says.