Four months ago, Anki co-founder Boris Soffman took the stage at Apple’s WWDC keynote. After years of stealthily toiling away in their labs with few outside of the company knowing their plans, the team unveiled their first product: Anki Drive, a racing game for the real world.
While the company has been somewhat quiet since their WWDC debut, they’ve just announced their plans to ship: come Oct. 23rd, Anki Drive will hit the shelves on Anki.com and at Apple Stores around the country. The “base kit”, which includes two cars, a pair of charging pods, and a massive roll-out vinyl race track, will cost $199. Additional cars, two of which will be available at launch, will cost $69.
I got a chance to play with Drive last week at Anki’s headquarters in San Francisco, interviewing co-founder Mark Palatucci while he and I attempted to take down one of the game’s AI-steered cars. For the record, the AI car totally kicked our ass. Check it out in the video up above.
What Is It?
Remember slotcars? Those toy race tracks, where you’d place a lil’ electric car into a slot and use a remote control to blast the car around the track along a fixed path?
Take that concept, but cram the cars full of modern tech like optical sensors and Bluetooth LE. Get rid of the slots and fixed paths, and pack a healthy helping of artificial intelligence into all of the other cars on the track. Oh, and toss in a bunch of virtual guns and power-ups for good measure. What do you get?
Playing The Game
Roll out the vinyl track. Turn on a car or four, place ‘em on the mat, and give each a little push; almost immediately, they’ll recognize their position and placement on the track and start zooming around on their own accord. Grab your iPhone — Anki Drive is iOS only, for now — and pick which car you want to drive, let any other human drivers you may have nearby join the match, then pick which cars are AI. Tell it just how smart you want each of the AI-driven cars to be, hit the “Start” button, and you’re off.
Anki Drive has two gameplay modes, for now: battle mode, and target practice mode. In the first, you’re zooming around the track armed with virtual machine guns and tractor beams, tasked with taking down more opposing cars than anyone else. There are no actual bullets whizzing around here, of course — as you mash the button to fire your machine gun, LEDs at the front of your car pulse and the sounds of bullets firing rings from your iPhone’s speakers. When an opponent’s bullets find their way to your car’s body, your iPhone vibrates to let you know it’s probably time to switch lanes. Practice mode, meanwhile, allows you to fire at passive opponents to brush up your accuracy.
One important thing to note, and something I didn’t realize until I actually played with Anki Drive: you’re not fully responsible for steering your car around the track. You control the gas, and you control the guns — but once you’ve mashed down on the gas pedal, the car’s AI is responsible for keeping you on course.
If you watch the video up above, however, you might notice me turning my iPhone about like a little steering wheel. Don’t worry! I’m not crazy. While the AI handles keeping you on the track, you’re able to shift back and forth across the lanes of the track — to say, pass an opponent, or line up your shots — by tilting the phone. Tilt left, your car drifts left. Tilt right, your car drifts right. You just don’t have to worry about pointing in the right direction, or mashing into walls.
At the end of each game, you’re awarded points based on how you performed. These points can be put towards upgrades — be it new weapons, or performance modifications. Every tweak and upgrade you make to a car stays with that specific car, permanently, opening up the possibility of selling or trading cars to other players.
How It Works
Telling a physical object where it is in the world is surprisingly difficult — especially when that object is small, and especially when that object is zipping around a race track, avoiding other equally small objects.
You know that aforementioned roll-out vinyl mat? Hidden within that mat, nearly invisible to the human eye, is a hugely complicated pattern of codes. On the bottom of each car is a camera that picks up and parses these patterns hundreds of times per second, allowing each car to know exactly where it currently sits, the direction it’s facing, and where it’ll be next.
All of this data is transmitted back to your iPhone (over Bluetooth LE), which acts as the brains of the operation. As you control your car, your phone is silently crunching all of these numbers, working out how to best block your path and take you down.
Anki Drive is cool. Really, really cool.
By taking their knowledge of robotics and artificial intelligence and mashing it up with toys, Anki has created something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. They tell me that their goal was to bring the feeling of a racing video game to life — and really, that’s exactly how I’d describe it.
The challenge, though, is the price. There’s a lot of technology packed under the hood (lol) here, from cameras to bluetooth transmitters, bumping the price of entry to something quite a bit higher than most parents might expect to pay for a toy. At $200 bucks for the base kit — $330 if you want all of the cars currently available (oh, and the cost of the iOS device required to control the game) — Anki is putting themselves in the same price range as a current-gen video game console with its massive library of available games. That’s one helluva pitch to try to make, especially with Christmas just around the corner.
With that said, I’m still really excited for this. I’m excited to see someone breaking into a new market, mashing up complex artificial intelligence with real world toys. I’m excited to see all of the other ways Anki uses this technology moving forward, and all of the ways they add to Drive.
Perhaps most of all, I’m excited to tear one of these cars apart and figure out how it all ticks.
“You know, people are going to love hacking these things apart, ” I mention to Palatucci.
“Oh, we know. As developers, we absolutely know. More on that later.” he replied.