tom dusenberrySouth African firm Robonica hopes to conquer the hearts of gift givers this holiday season with hybrid entertainment that combines the interactivity of video games and the physical fun of toy robots.

The company’s first product, Roboni-I, is a robot with two wheels that wanders around on its own. Since you can play games with it and engage in robot activities on the web, Tom Dusenberry, head of North America for Robonica, refers to the launch of Roboni-I as the “rise of robotic gaming.”

Combining toys and the web to produce hybrid entertainment is a hot trend. Webkinz dipped its toes in this water by combining plush toys with codes that could unlock fun activities on its web site. Going a step further in interactivity, Jordan Weisman’s startup, Smith & Tinker, launched its Nanovor fighting toys along with a game-focused web site this fall. And Will Wright, creator of The Sims, started his own company to work on entertainment that bridged both the game and toy worlds. Topps has also introduced baseball cards that show 3-D images on a computer screen when you hold them in front of a webcam. And Mattel is launching new toys based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar that do the same thing. Both use technology from Total Immersion.

Dusenberry, the former chief of Hasbro Interactive, says that the company built a lot of smarts into the robot, which has four microprocessors and 16 sensors, as well as the software that makes it versatile. The robot can detect radio frequency identification tags (RFID). It also comes with a remote control you can use to control it and drive it around. And you can also log into a web site where you can play games, explore the surface of a virtual moon, socialize with other players, and make changes to your robot that you can download to it.

robonicaRobonica was founded in 2005 and has 67 employees, including seven at its U.S. division in Boston. It received multiple millions of dollars of funding from the South African government’s innovation fund and its development fund. Dusenberry joined the company in 2008.

The “toy” isn’t cheap at $249.99. But it landed on the cover of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, which caters to wealthy folks who love gadgets. It’s also on sale at Toys ‘R Us, Fry’s Electronics,, Sears, and Robot Shop. It competes against toy robots made by WowWee, which makes smart robot toys that aren’t really programmable. But WowWee’s robots, such as Robo Sapiens, are selling in the millions now.

Those kinds of robots suffer from what Dusenberry calls “day after Christmas syndrome,” which means people get bored with them fast. But Dusenberry says Robonica hopes to keep players interested by adding more games for the players to engage in with their robots. Seven games are in the works, including ones with multiplayer play. One game, Colors, is a race where you try to drive the robot over colored objects as fast as possible. You can actually use the remote control to drive a virtual Roboni-I on a computer in the web-based game (pictured below).

robonica 2“It’s similar to the Xbox, since we have both hardware and software,” Dusenberry said. “The idea is to fuse the best of interactive entertainment with consumer robots.”

So far, Dusenberry says the robots are selling well. Parents are buying them, as are engineers and hobbyists. The latter group has been attracted to the Lego Mindstorms robots, which snap together and are easy to program. Robonica has an object-based programming model that is easy to learn as well.

Robonica plans to sell accessories as well, so players can customize their robots. The next major upgrade for the robot will come in 2010. While the robot is a high-end gift now, Dusenberry says he hopes to hit more of the mass market and international markets in the next year or so.