When I was most intensely interested in toy race cars — which would be back in the 1970s — there was no question what the state of the art in that particular category of plaything was. It was Ideal’s Total Control Racing, a dazzling slot-car system that let automobiles switch lanes as they zoomed around the track. The setup also included a “jam car” which drove itself. I wanted TCR desperately, but nobody ever gave it to me.
Fast forward to 2013. A startup called Anki, founded by Carnegie Mellon scientists, aims to bring advanced robotics and artificial intelligence technologies into the home. Its first robots happen to be rather small. They’ve got four wheels and headlights and spoilers, and zip around a track. You can control any of company’s bots yourself using an iPhone as your dashboard, or allow it to handle the job itself via artificial intelligence.
Do I need to explain why I was smitten with the idea from the moment Anki unveiled it at Apple’s WWDC event last June?
The finished product, which is called Anki Drive, arrived in Apple Stores this week. Designed for use by everyone from little kids to gadget-happy adults, it goes for $200 — an imposing price tag for a toy, though not wildly out of whack with what high-end slot-car sets once cost after you adjust for inflation.
Inside the long, skinny, luxe-looking box is the raceway — which is really a printed plastic mat that rolls up — and two cars. You can play with up to four human- or A.I.-controlled vehicles at a time; extras are $70 apiece. Don’t forget the iPhones: You need at least one (or an iPod Touch or iPad) to play, plus another one for each additional person who wants to drive simultaneously.
Nothing about the set feels cheap or — in the pejorative sense — toy-like. The cars themselves look great: They’re all different, and designed by a Hollywood artist whose previous creations include the Batmobile which George Clooney drove in Batman and Robin. Each one comes with a slick translucent hinged box, which both serves as a recharging station and protects the car if you toss it in a backpack for on-the-go play. Even the USB cable you use to charge the cars’ sealed-in batteries is a custom, hydra-headed job which lets up to three vehicles refuel at a time.
The mat is exceptionally spacious: 8.5-feet long by 3.5-feet wide, with a jumbo-sized loop of “track.” That makes for more enjoyable play, as long as you’ve got the room to accommodate it. (I knew that my living room was too cramped to be Anki-friendly without a major reconfiguration of furniture, so I tried the set out at the office, on our gigantic conference-room table.) Other than rolling out the mat, there’s no setup involved — not even the sometimes-gnarly Bluetooth pairing process which I assumed I’d have to complete before the Anki iPhone app could connect to the cars.
Here’s where Drive’s robotics and artificial intelligence kick in. Even though the track is printed on a flat piece of plastic, the cars know that it’s there. They speed around it confidently, handling curves with aplomb and avoiding collisions with other vehicles. Human-driven cars operate in a computer-assisted mode — they never stop completely, and under most circumstances you can’t drive them off the track, intentionally or unintentionally. (I did witness a few accidents in which vehicles careened out of bounds, but they were rare.)
It looks for all the world like the autos are thinking for themselves, especially since capabilities such as speed, acceleration and agility vary from model to model. But in reality, they aren’t that brainy: Mostly, they can move forward, steer, use sensors on their undersides to determine where they are on the mat and report their coordinates back to the controlling iPhone via Bluetooth. All the heavy computational lifting is done by the Anki app on the iPhone of the person hosting the race: It handles all the maneuvers for any A.I.-controlled vehicles on the track; relays commands from the human players to their cars; and keeps track of where all the cars are in relation to each other. And it does it all in real time, with balletic precision — so smoothly that you can ignore the fact that it’s a remarkable technical achievement and just play.
If you’re driving a car, you can control its speed. You can steer left and right by waggling your iPhone to and fro. And you can deploy weaponry — such as a pulse carbine or a tractor beam — which varies from vehicle to vehicle.
Yep — Anki may describe what you’re doing “racing,” but in the primary game mode, you don’t win by lapping the other cars. Instead, you score points by shooting at them. (You need to use your imagination, since the combat is represented by flashing lights on the cars and sound effects generated by your phone.) The driver who reaches a preset number of points first wins. As you play, you accrue upgrade points which you can spend on additional weapons, armor and other parts that make the cars into fiercer, more customized competitors, thereby changing the dynamics of play over time.
All of this is a blast if you compete against A.I.-controlled vehicles, each of which you can set to one of three difficulty levels: Easy, Medium or Hard. But both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat have much more impact when multiple people are involved. The most entertaining sound effects aren’t the ones that come out of the Anki app; they’re the taunts, yelps and sighs of human players.
At two hundred bucks, it would be a shame if Drive were the sort of gimmicky novelty that’s wondrous for a weekend or two before ending up forgotten at the back of a closet. I think that it should have more staying power than that, especially in families which have multiple members interested in playing (and enough iPhones to go around). Unlike most toy cars, the Anki vehicles are also built to learn new tricks over time: The app alludes to a game called “Race” that’s coming soon, and it’s easy to envision Anki putting its teensy robots to work in a variety of play scenarios. Maybe even some involving additional mats with different layouts.
For now, most of the Anki experience is beautifully done, but it’s not quirk-free. For instance, the app shows how many points you’ve racked up in a game, but not how many other human and A.I. participants have scored; unless you keep track yourself, you might not know who’s ahead until someone’s won. I also found the section of the app where you spend Upgrade Points on car customizations to be surprisingly inscrutable. More explanation of what the upgrades are and how you acquire them would be helpful.
But Anki Drive’s biggest flaw is the battery life of its cars, which is meager. Each auto runs for just 20 minutes on a charge, which amounts to only three to five games at a time. That leaves the whole experience feeling a bit like driving a car with a three-gallon gas tank, and I had to abort more than one exciting race in progress when a vehicle died on the track. (The good news is that it only takes eight minutes in a charging station to fuel up again.)
It’s frustrating: The more deeply engaged you are by these clever little racers, the more the need to recharge them so frequently will seem like an, um, Achilles’ Wheel. Still, those who wish to be among the first to experience the future of fun may be forgiving. And even if its first product doesn’t capture your imagination, Anki is a startup worth watching. There may be only two cars, a mat and a few accessories inside the Drive box, but it also contains ideas about the intersection of technology and play which could keep the company busy for years.