Anki

Anki Drive is a video game where the characters are robotic cars in your living room

Anki Drive is a video game where the characters are robotic cars in your living room

Video games may have evolved over the past 40 years, but the toy industry hasn't done the same. There's constant evolution and creativity, but according to Boris Sofman, CEO at robotics company Anki, most toys are still essentially the same things kids played with in the 60s and 70s.

The toy industry, for all its creative flair, is still all about selling plastic. The toys may get more ornate or more interesting, but rarely do they get more intelligent. That's where video games have excelled. Sofman wants to use the strengths of games to help bolster the creativity and fun in packaged toys.

The intersection

Anki Drive is essentially the opposite of Skylanders. Where Activision's hit brings toys into video game worlds, Anki Drive brings the concepts and AI of video games and injects them into toys.

“We're making a video game in the real world,” said Anki's Sofman. “We're taking the best elements of physical entertainment and virtual entertainment and creating almost a new category of entertainment at the intersection of toys, video games, and mobile devices.”

“Through the use of robotics and AI technologies we're able to do something which nobody has really done before, which is to program video games on top of real world characters.”

Their first game, Anki Drive, is a hybrid between a toy and a video game. Imagine what a video game would be like if you replaced all the character models with real-world robots.

You have a mat, a few cars, a smartphone, and any number of players. Anki Drive is, at first glance, exactly like any normal racing toy you've seen as the cars motor around the track, jockeying for position. What's different is what's happening inside your smartphone.

An iPhone serves as both the car controller and the central processing unit of the game itself, as every car is controlled or assisted by artificial intelligence. Just like in a racing video game, Anki Drive offers the driver a certain amount of assistence and course correction when playing.

Any car that's not controlled by a player can be set to be controlled directly by the AI, complete with different personalities and objectives. Beyond that, Anki Drives also incorporates things like weaponry and progression; as you race, you'll be able to upgrade your car's shields, speed, weapons etc. The toy will actually evolve as you continue to play.

Sofman also mentioned the ability for them to push updates to Anki Drive as well, allowing for additional content and gameplay tweaks. Welcome to the world of toy race cars with DLC.

Smartphone revolution

There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about this. This kind of AI technology has been available in video games for decades, and this robotics tech has been in research labs and militaries for just as long. The challenge is in bringing the costs down far enough that the average consumer could afford it.

“The thing that makes that really difficult is that applications where a $2000 sensor or a $50,000 [sensor] are perfectly fine, all of the sudden are not fine when you want to make consumer products,” Sofman said. These types of sensors and robotics have really only been typical in the military, where the near-infinite US military budget makes their costs a trivial barrier.

“The big opportunity and challenge is to bring the level of performance that has traditionally been trapped in [defense and research] and reinvent applications that would affect our daily lives in ways that are not only suprising but also fun, entertaining, productive, and high impact.”

The first way to keep costs down is, of course, to use the smartphone that most of us already have in our pockets. Previously, Anki would have had to ship its own controller and computing device which would make costs jump, and that device would likely not be as powerful as modern iPhones. The iPhone serves as the game console for Anki Drive, while the track itself does a lot of the rest of the heavy lifting.

Transparent track

The track is made with a special printing technology that allows it to communicate information to each car about its position on the course.

“That's a really intentionally designed environment where the cars can, 500 times per second, sense where they are on the track,” said Sofman. “It's a very specifically designed track where everything that looks like the track to you and me is sort of transparent to the characters who see a special code and scheme inside of the track. It's this special kind of printing technology that makes this possible. There's no magnets, no electronics, nothing inside of it. As a result, we can use a downward-facing camera [mounted on each car] to sense that track and use it to understand their position, as well as how well they're executing the trajectory they want to execute and make adjustments.”

“If we were to do this in a lab at Carnegie-Mellon,” said Sofman of his alma mater, “we'd be in a room with a half dozen HD cameras mounted on the ceiling doing motion tracking. And it would work. You'd get milimeter-levels of position, but it would cost you tens of thousands. We're able to get the exact same level of precision on positioning for tiny fractions of that cost by using clever combinations of components, of materials, and algorithms that deal with whatever uncertainties we might have.”

They're not all the way there yet though. Anki Drive still costs $200, which is certainly within the range of some consumers, but isn't exactly mass market.

The hope is that this is only the beginning, that Anki Drive demonstrates a demand for this sort of advanced hybrid game/toy which would lead to future endeavors.

Throughout our conversation, Sofman repeatedly referred to Anki Drive as their “first game.” Suggesting that this is really only the beginning of the collision of robotics and video gaming. He wouldn't say what other sort of games they're working on, but I know what I'm hoping for.

Please make an AI-controlled Rock-em Sock-em Robots.

Anki Drive hits Apple Stores on October 23 for $199. The app is available now for free.