Bot Wheels: Anki Drive’s Cars Are Tiny, High-Speed Robots

A WWDC debutante's dreams go far beyond revolutionizing toy race cars.

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Anki cofounder Boris Sofman shows off Anki Drive at Apple's WWDC keynote on June 10, 2013

The first demo at Apple’s WWDC conference keynote last Monday wasn’t an Apple demo. Instead, it was from a stealthy startup showing off its stuff in public for the first time. The startup is named Anki, and the stuff was Anki Drive, a racing game with real, physical tiny motorized cars that are controlled via iPhone.

Anki doesn’t, however, think of itself as a toy company. Its founders are robotics scientists from Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, and the company, which has raised $50 million in funding, simply sees its little cars as the first step towards its goal of revolutionizing consumer robotics. Later in the week, I chatted with cofounder Boris Sofman, who presided over the WWDC demo (which went well after a few scary seconds of wireless trouble).

Anki Drive’s cars look like the slot-cars of my youth–albeit a whole lot nicer–but they pack technology that Aurora and Tyco never dreamed of. Yet they’re also designed to be manufacturable as mainstream consumer-electronics products.

(Sofman told me that Anki Drive will cost around $200, a pricetag which will include a quantity of cars Anki isn’t yet disclosing. That sounded stratospheric to me until I realized that I tend to think of playthings in the prices of my youth. In 1972, a top-of-the-line slot-car set went for $35, roughly the same as Anki Drive once you’ve adjusted for inflation.)

Each Anki car includes two motors, at a cost of less than $1 apiece. Also onboard is an optical sensor which can record the car’s location 500 times a second, then transmits it back to an iPhone via a Bluetooth Low Power wireless module. And each car includes a 50-MHz processor–more powerful, Sofman told me, than the one in his first PC–that costs around 80 cents.

Much of the magic is in the Anki Drive racetrack, which is printed on a mat you can roll up. The mat includes embedded positioning information that lets each car locate itself precisely; rather than being able to see each other directly, the cars report where they are to the iPhone, which keeps track.

As you’d expect, the cars can be controlled by human players. But they can also be guided by the iPhone. Anki Drive takes full advantage of the phone’s processing power to tackle the artificial intelligence necessary to precisely steer multiple miniature vehicles at the equivalent of 250 miles per hour. Rather than just tearing along like drones, they can interact with each other: Sofman’s WWDC demo involved one car using a virtual weapon to blast others right off the track.

A hint of Anki’s overarching ambitions beyond building a racing game is present in the fact that Sofman calls the automobiles characters rather than merely cars. “All of a sudden, the entire gameplay is defined in software,” he told me. “We’re able to program the physical characters as if they were video game characters. That’s something nobody else has been able to do.”

And because Anki Drive’s world is physical rather than digital, the cars must adjust to real-world challenges. Each car oscillates its wheel speed 500 times per second to make it stick to the intended trajectory. “A tiny bit of dust on the tires changes their properties,” Sofman says.

“For the people buying this, we want it to be deceptive how difficult this was. We spent half a decade on this, but we want people to take it for granted.”

So what does Anki plan to build other than Anki Drive? Sofman described the company’s plans to me in expansive terms, not specific ones. He did say that Anki has lots of options: “It’s weird to think of robotics as an industry, because robotics and AI are tools that apply to every industry. It’s kind of nice to have the problem of choice.”

“People are going to be surprised at how many aspects of their daily lives are going to be reinvented over the coming years,” Sofman says. But for now, Anki is still busy reinventing scale-model auto racing. Anki Drive is due to show up at Apple Store retail locations this fall; the company doesn’t have any immediate plans to support Android or other platforms, but hasn’t ruled the idea out.