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

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interact with other Roboni-i devices. (You need to go and watch the video on the Robonica home page to really get it.) For players who want to continue the experience online, there’s an entire Web-based game built around the foot-high devices—which somehow manage to look menacing and cute at the same time.

And for serious amateur roboticists, the units come with a USB cables and PC-based “command center” software that allows users to rewrite the robots’ basic instructions. “We think there’s a huge secondary market among people interested in artificial intelligence and robotic science and people who love programming and modifying products,” says Dusenberry.

Dusenberry left Hasbro in 2001 after the company sold the interactive subsidiary he headed to French publisher Infogrames.The Robonica story started two and a half years ago, when he got a phone call from Poolman. “He said he had a new product idea and he didn’t know if he was on the right track, but that he had read about me, and he’d love to show me the project and get some feedback,” Dusenberry recalls. Poolman eventually wound up on Dusenberry’s doorstep, prototypes in hand.

“I was wowed by the man and by the product idea, and I felt it could be revolutionary,” Dusenberry says. “It was about physical play and interactive entertainment being brought together in an interesting way, and with an immersive online component. Two years later, I’m proud to say we have a product that is ready to ship to consumers.”

Robonica's online gameDusenberry, who’s been working on electronic toys and video games since the 1970s, says he and Poolman didn’t want Roboni-i to be like other remote-control toys, most of which have a small bag of tricks that get boring fast. “My life has been all about interactive entertainment, and what that really means is that you want the consumer to play with your product for a long time,” Dusenberry says. “With Roboni-i, the major differentiator is being able to go in and customize and personalize the robot so that you can change the game experience. Where we differ from every other robot on the market is that we’re providing the source code and encouraging people to modify the actual C++.”

Dusenberry says he hopes that Robonica can tap into same kind of enthusiasm for hands-on engineering experiences that has catapulted the FIRST Robotics Competition, the creation of New Hampshire inventor-entrepreneur Dean Kamen, into the global spotlight, with hundreds of student teams competing every year. “We think FIRST is beyond awesome, and we totally support that whole program,” he says. “From the point of view of our product, we are contacting local high schools to go in and meet with classes. We hope that they see that this could be a great tool for learning about robotics pretty cost-effectively.”

Dusenberry also hopes to build more connections between Robonica and the dozens of other robotics companies around New England. “I was blown away when I went to the RoboBusiness conference at the Hynes [Convention Center] in April and realized how big robots are in Massachusetts,” Dusenberry says. “But I also realized how small a role consumer robots had in the grand scheme of things, aside from iRobot, which is obviously the global leader in the home robot area. My hope and dream is that Robonica will become a success and that the Massachusetts robotics community will really get behind us. We just haven’t done the proof points yet to be able to play with the big boys.”

That proof could start to come over the next few months, as Robonica tests the holiday gift-buying market. The suggested retail price for Roboni-i is $250. Interestingly, however, Hammacher Schlemmer is asking $299; the company told Robonica that it thought its customers would respond better at the higher price point, Dusenberry says. “In all my years of selling consumer products, I’ve never been in a situation where I was criticized by the retailer for having a price that’s too low,” he says. “That gives you a story about how powerful they think the product is.”

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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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