Robonica President, an Ex-Hasbro Exec, Hopes to Put Boston Back on Toy Industry Map with Rolling Robots

Boston is home to a huge cluster of hot game companies, from Harmonix to Turbine to 38 Studios. But you might be surprised to learn just how deep the region’s gaming history goes. If Xconomy had been around a century ago, we probably would have been writing about Parker Brothers, which got its start in Salem, MA, in 1883 and went on to create Monopoly, Clue, Risk, and Trivial Pursuit, to name just a few of the company’s blockbuster board games.

As Parker Brothers’ star gradually dimmed—it was absorbed by General Mills in 1963, then Tonka in 1987, then Hasbro in 1991—Boston’s prominence in the game and toy business waned as well. But today the Parker Brothers gaming legacy is re-emerging—and fusing with another local industry, robotics. The link? Tom Dusenberry, a lifelong game industry insider who got his start working on the Parker Brothers loading dock and eventually rose to become the founder and CEO of Hasbro Interactive, the video game subsidiary of toy giant Hasbro (NYSE: HAS). This week the multinational startup Robonica, where Dusenberry is now president, will launch its first product: Robini-i, a novel wheeled robot packed with sensors, radios, and a fully programmable onboard brain.

Roboni-i is arguably the biggest thing to hit the robot-toy business since the uber-popular Lego Mindstorms. And the new robot is emerging just a few miles from Salem, in Beverly, MA, where Robonica is headquartered. But there’s also a South African side to the story: Robonica CEO Johan Poolman, an electrical engineer by training, is the founder of a series of technology companies in the Johannesburg area, and works from the company’s R&D and manufacturing facilities in Centurion, a suburb of Pretoria. The company has 45 employees in Centurion, and obtained 100 percent of its financing from a pair of technology investment funds run by the South African government, Dusenberry says.

A pair of Robonica's Roboni-i robots, with accessoriesSometimes, all a smart startup needs to succeed is a lucky break, and Robonica has caught a huge one. Hammacher Schlemmer, the specialty gift merchandiser, decided to feature the Roboni-i on the cover of its Holiday 2009 catalog, which is being mailed out to millions of consumers starting today. (“How cool is that?” Dusenberry cracks.) The robots are also available starting today from Robonica’s website, and will be stocked by FAO Schwarz, the Fry’s Home Electronics chain on the West Coast, and some Toys R Us stores, as well as Amazon and other e-retailers.

Dusenberry says the primary target audience for the Roboni-i is 13- to 17-year-old boys, for whom the remote-controlled devices will provide, in his words, “a killer interactive entertainment experience.” But after watching a demonstration at last week’s MassTLC Tech Tuesday event at Microsoft’s NERD Center in Cambridge—and, I admit, after taking the Roboni-i for a spin myself—I think it’s safe to say that the nimble little machines will appeal to gadget lovers of all ages.

Roboni-i comes pre-programmed with six action games that, in the words of a company announcement, challenge players to “beat the odds, race against time, manage resources, neutralize threats, execute special effects and collect bonus points to improve score.” Using the remote control, players can maneuver the robots around pylons, saucers, balls, and other accessories; the units also have sensors that allow them to navigate autonomously or … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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