Anki’s robot cars aren’t the Hot Wheels of your youth. They could be something much cooler.

October 18, 2013

Meet the AnkiDrive cars: Kourai, Katal, Boson and Rho. (Courtesy of Anki)

There are lots of ways to describe AnkiDrive, a new app-controlled toy set that lets players customize the specs of actual model cars. You could call it a video game, or a smart toy.

Just don't call it a remote-controlled car.

That's a label that Anki, a robotics and artificial intelligence firm, is working hard to keep off AnkiDrive. These aren't Hot Wheels, and they're not Roombas. Anki touts the game and its robotic elements as the building blocks of  the "first video game in the real world." Players can build the cars as characters in their own right, pulling in the best aspects of video gaming. At the same time, Anki can retain the sentimental attachment that kids (and, to be honest, adults) have for physical toys.

Game companies have made significant moves to bring games out of the console through app tie-ins and smart scavenger hunts that let players pull their enthusiasm for games into meatspace. For Anki, making a racing game -- which lets players play with physical cars, race them on a floor mat and tune them through  software -- seemed like a perfect proving ground for taking that idea to the next level.

It did, however, come with some problems.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," said Boris Sofman, Anki co-founder and chief executive. "We've had to show this is not a remote-controlled car, like a racing set. We had to make that first impression, unlike those other products."

The firm made a big first impression when it debuted the project at Apple's WWDC conference this summer, showing off the app as it ran through the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The full game, priced at $199, hits store shelves  Oct. 23, the company said.

The starter kits come with two of four cars that were designed by Harald Belker, who has lent his skills to the futuristic effects in films such as "Minority Report" and "Iron Man."

Each car has its own particular attributes. One is best  for speed, while another is good at recovering from crashes, options similar to those in a typical character creation screen.  In fact, Sofman refers to Anki's set as "characters," not cars, to highlight the number of customization options. For example, he said, you could prize handling over speed, set up a car to drift around corners,  or program a driver to be a little bit sneaky during races.  You can race against other players or against cars controlled by the app's artificial intelligence. AI-controlled cars are equally able to strategize their way to winning a race, and all the cars retain their custom elements so players can build up a unique profile as they put in more hours of play.

"This is touching on the key element that makes video games different from toys," Sofman said. "Toys don't evolve. With video games, there's progression. You play a different game in the second week, in the second month of a video game. That's the element that we're looking to bring here for the first time."

Sofman said that AnkiDrive stands as concrete proof of how important the technology under the hood of those tiny cars could be outside the realm of entertainment. To build the system, he said, the team had to solve problems such as enabling AI objects to recognize where they are and figuring out a range of wireless communications issues that may have wider implications beyond video games and eventually spill over into other, unrelated fields.

"These are core technologies that go beyond a racing game and entertainment," Sofman said. "These are the same algorithms you would use for a robot navigating around a house, or for transportation. You could use the same approaches, just tailored for other applications."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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October 18, 2013

Meet the AnkiDrive cars: Kourai, Katal, Boson and Rho. (Courtesy of Anki)

There are lots of ways to describe AnkiDrive, a new app-controlled toy set that lets players customize the specs of actual model cars. You could call it a video game, or a smart toy.

Just don't call it a remote-controlled car.

That's a label that Anki, a robotics and artificial intelligence firm, is working hard to keep off AnkiDrive. These aren't Hot Wheels, and they're not Roombas. Anki touts the game and its robotic elements as the building blocks of  the "first video game in the real world." Players can build the cars as characters in their own right, pulling in the best aspects of video gaming. At the same time, Anki can retain the sentimental attachment that kids (and, to be honest, adults) have for physical toys.

Game companies have made significant moves to bring games out of the console through app tie-ins and smart scavenger hunts that let players pull their enthusiasm for games into meatspace. For Anki, making a racing game -- which lets players play with physical cars, race them on a floor mat and tune them through  software -- seemed like a perfect proving ground for taking that idea to the next level.

It did, however, come with some problems.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," said Boris Sofman, Anki co-founder and chief executive. "We've had to show this is not a remote-controlled car, like a racing set. We had to make that first impression, unlike those other products."

The firm made a big first impression when it debuted the project at Apple's WWDC conference this summer, showing off the app as it ran through the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The full game, priced at $199, hits store shelves  Oct. 23, the company said.

The starter kits come with two of four cars that were designed by Harald Belker, who has lent his skills to the futuristic effects in films such as "Minority Report" and "Iron Man."

Each car has its own particular attributes. One is best  for speed, while another is good at recovering from crashes, options similar to those in a typical character creation screen.  In fact, Sofman refers to Anki's set as "characters," not cars, to highlight the number of customization options. For example, he said, you could prize handling over speed, set up a car to drift around corners,  or program a driver to be a little bit sneaky during races.  You can race against other players or against cars controlled by the app's artificial intelligence. AI-controlled cars are equally able to strategize their way to winning a race, and all the cars retain their custom elements so players can build up a unique profile as they put in more hours of play.

"This is touching on the key element that makes video games different from toys," Sofman said. "Toys don't evolve. With video games, there's progression. You play a different game in the second week, in the second month of a video game. That's the element that we're looking to bring here for the first time."

Sofman said that AnkiDrive stands as concrete proof of how important the technology under the hood of those tiny cars could be outside the realm of entertainment. To build the system, he said, the team had to solve problems such as enabling AI objects to recognize where they are and figuring out a range of wireless communications issues that may have wider implications beyond video games and eventually spill over into other, unrelated fields.

"These are core technologies that go beyond a racing game and entertainment," Sofman said. "These are the same algorithms you would use for a robot navigating around a house, or for transportation. You could use the same approaches, just tailored for other applications."

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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