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.
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 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.
“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.”
Article Link (Xconomy)