Fast track to the future

Anki Drive lets iOS users race with robots in disguise

When Apple makes a keynote presentation, it’s about the company’s own products first and foremost. So when Apple CEO Tim Cook chooses to share his forum with an outside developer, people tend to take notice. That’s what happened several weeks ago at the Worldwide Developers Conference when newcomer Anki was invited to demonstrate Anki Drive, a technologically advanced miniature car-racing game powered by iOS. «They’re using iOS devices and the iOS platform to bring artificial intelligence and robotics into our daily lives,» declared Cook.

Boris Sofman, Anki’s cofounder and CEO, stood in front of thousands of

Apple enthusiasts to help Anki Drive make its debut. «It was an honor to launch on the WWDC stage, and a really cool experience at that,» he admits. «We’ve been working tirelessly for over five years to bring Anki to where it is today — all without saying a word about it publicly — so, to share what we’ve been doing with the world in that way was one word: incredible.»

At a glance, the miniature vehicles of Anki Drive look like typical toy cars, but in reality they’re much more. The cars, in essence, are robots that use sensors and complex Al routines to self-navigate their way around a flat, red-and-black, roll-out track. The vehicles are able to determine their positions on the track, as well as the locations of the other vehicles, and use that information to decide what actions to take. Meanwhile, an iOS app works over Bluetooth to coordinate the vehicles and make it all come together, allowing the cars to race against each other or again a human player, resulting in an interacts experience that’s akin to a video game come to life.

«For us, entertainment is a perfect area to start introducing people to what possible with robotics and artificial-intelligence technologies,» proclaims Sofman. «We wanted to create a new experience around a core genre of games — a racing game seemed the perfect place to start. Cars and racing games have a cross-generational appeal that’s stood the test of time.»

But Anki Drive isn’t simply about cars making laps around a track. In the on-stage demo, for example, three «enemy» cars worked together to impede the progress of the «hero» car nicknamed «Aiden.» Furthermore, Aiden (and presumably human players) can unleash virtual weaponry that can be used to send opponents’ vehicles careening off course, temporarily disabling them and allowing the hero to take the lead. It’s all made possible by iOS technology and the vehicles’ sensors, which constantly take in data so the cars can understand and react to everything that’s going on around them in real time.

«Our algorithms have to deal with real-world uncertainties, constraints, and variations in environments and internal components,» Sofman explains. «For example, we are using a camera — one that is very similar to those found in many cell phones — in a special operating mode, to look downward at the track and interpret the special information that’s embedded there 500 times per second, in order to identify the car’s position, accurately track its motion, and adjust its motor commands to follow the desired trajectory precisely. This involves many sophisticated algorithms working together to make this possible.»

Like all good games, Anki Drive is designed with maximum replay value in mind. According to Sofman, there are three key components that promise to keep players engaged and coming back for more. «First,» says Sofman, «the gameplay evolves, getting deeper, more immersive, and more strategic over time. Second, the cars are really characters, each with their own personality traits and strengths. And third, it is a game that allows you to play against other players or against the artificial intelligence.» Though Anki Drive might be possible on other hardware, for the time being it’s going to be exclusive to Apple. Given Anki Drive’s fusion of fun and cutting-edge technology, the pairing is a natural fit.

«Apple believes in creating experiences that impact our daily lives, and we sее the world similarly,» Sofman stat es. «We’re both attacking different problems with an emphasis on technology. iOS is a great platform to build on and there is a very clear overlap between the vision we have with artificial intelligence and robotics, and the role mobile devices play in that. In time, we’ll look at other platforms, but right now, we want to make sure we have a great product right out of the gate. » Users will get to take that product home for themselves this fall, when Anki Drive becomes available for purchase online and iin Apple Stores for $200. What consumers get for that price hasn’t been revealed, but it will likely at least include the roll-out track and multiple vehicles. In the meantime, you can download the free Anki Drive app via the App Store (bit.ly/ML_Anki). Not only will it provide the latest details on Anki Drive, but come fall, it will be updated to function as the controller for Anki Drive cars. Additionally, the iOS app is your gateway to sign up for Anki Drive’s closed beta program in the event that you’re hungry for an advanced sneak-peek.

Of course, Anki Drive is likely just the beginning. If the project is a hit, we can expect more products from Anki that harness iOS to bring robotics and advanced Al to users around the globe.

«We have built a strong foundation and framework of technology that will open the doors for many things down the road,» confirms Sofman. «The possibilities are endless, but ultimately, we are passionate about bringing this sophisticated technology into people’s everyday lives. Three years ago, we couldn’t even imagine this would be possible, but the advancements in technology made it so. It’s hard to say exactly what our future might look like, but we’re very excited about the possibilities ahead.»

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