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Mechatars offer new way of play

Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

When a Pittsburgh robotic toy maker needed to build a virtual universe for its battling characters, it found help at another high-tech company across town.

Carnegie Mellon University spinoff Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. created Mechatars, animal-like machines that Toys R Us and other major retailers began selling in August.

On a family room floor, Mechatar toys run and spin on two revolving legs, taunt their opponents and light up as they fire attacks.

On a computer screen, characters named Alpha, Kodar and Wrexx train against each other as they prepare to defend their remote planets from the Swarm -- corrupt robots that want to take over the online "Mechaverse" designed by Schell Games LLC of the South Side.

Mechatars gain power and skills by playing in both worlds -- a concept the company calls "blended reality." When a player connects the toy with a cable to the computer game, the toy and game each will share new abilities for use on the other.

"This is a very new way of playing. We're not fitting into an existing pattern where people play online or offline," Sarjoun Skaff, chief technology officer, said this week at Bossa Nova's Strip District office as he demonstrated the toy and game.

Bossa Nova introduced its first toys in 2009 -- a growling, yellow Prime-8 robot and hot pink Penbo penguin that hatches and interacts with a baby.

Penbo sold out last year and the Mechatars, with their advanced features and more attractive $39.99 pricetag, have replaced Prime-8, which sold for around $80. Penbo, the Mechatars and other Bossa Nova toys are marketed under the iloveRobots brand.

The Mechatars' two-way, ever-evolving play makes the toys stand out, said Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association Inc.

"It's very fun and innovative. Your toy is going to be drastically different from your friend's toy," said Appell, who has tried out the new robots.

Products that mix physical and online play in some way are a trend in the $21.9 billion domestic toy market. "Parents are looking for that balance in the toy box," she said. "They don't want their kids in front of a screen all day."

Toys R Us sells several "reverse technology" toys that mix physical and digital worlds, said Bob Friedland, a toy expert with the store chain. Bossa Nova's Penbo "is definitely a popular toy" and is priced at $49.99 in Toys R Us "great big" book for the holidays.

Robotic toys are popular, and "Penbo has a hidden surprise which really excites kids," he said referring to the toy's egg with a round, tiny baby called Bebe.

Bossa Nova has 37 employees, including about a dozen engineers in a Strip District research and development office. CEO Martin Hitch and the sales, marketing and online game operation staffs are in San Francisco, and about 10 employees are in Hong Kong. Toy production is in China.

The Mechatars project started three years ago, when technologies required by the robots -- wireless communication, flash memory and others -- were too complex and costly for use in toys.

"The only way we could do it was if we moved a lot of the heavy lifting to the cloud," Hitch said. Online cloud computing -- using powerful, remote computer centers -- rather than a traditional game console with discs, now has enough power to collect and send data to the toy and game, he said.

Bossa Nova took the concept to Schell Games, known for building online play worlds for Disney characters and creating theme park attractions. Schell worked on the new Turtle Reef at Sea World in San Diego, for example.

"We always knew we had to connect the robots to the Internet, because the kids were online anyway," Skaff said.

Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell, a former Disney executive who also teaches game design at CMU, has "an incredibly creative mind, probably the best in the country for creating games for children," Skaff said.

The project became a collaboration, with Bossa Nova describing features it wanted in the game and Schell putting its own ideas into the toy.

Schell came up with the idea for a battle game in which players take turns. Players choose attacks, based on an opponent's weaknesses.

Bossa Nova started with the three characters and some rough sketches for the game, Jake Witherell, Schell chief operating officer, recalled. From there, the two companies worked on how the web-based Mechaverse would look, considering such points as, "Is this a cartoony world, a serious or dark world?"

At one point, the Mechatars had no remote control units.

"Jesse felt strongly that (the toy) should have a remote to enhance the game play, and that kids will want to be in control rather than putting it on the floor and letting it spin around," Witherell said. "We've done a number of connected toy projects, but none like this."

Schell, for example, worked with Jakks Pacific Toy Co. on the "Toy Story Mania" TV game, which Time magazine named as one of last year's best toys.

Most of Schell's 60 employees are in Pittsburgh, and the company will continue developing the Mechatars' world as their story evolves, Witherell said.

Additional Information:

Battling online, or at home

What: Mechatars, evolving, cross-dimensional robot toys.

Developer: Bossa Nova Robotics Inc., Strip District, under the iloveRobots brand. Schell Games LLC, South Side, developed a related online game.

Price: $39.99 each, with weapon accessories sold for $9.99. Game is free to play, with no purchase necessary, at . Privately owned Bossa Nova doesn't disclose sales.

Where sold: Toys R Us, Target, and soon, Radio Shack.

Characters: Alpha, green, resembles a wolf; Kodar, blue, bear-like; Wrexx, red, raptor-like. Another character, Exomorph, will go on sale in January for $19.99; two new Mechatars planned later in 2012.



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