Anki Drive brings iOS videogame racing to real life for $199 (hands-on)

Six years ago, when Boris Sofman, Mark Palatucci and Hanns Tappeiner were enrolled in the robotics Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon University, they noticed that a vast majority of robotics and artificial intelligence research went into government and industrial sectors, with very little of it focusing on the consumer. The primary barrier was cost, of course, but as the price of hardware kept getting lower and as smartphones became more powerful and ubiquitous, the trio figured that the time was ripe for consumer robotics. As lovers of cars and video games, the group decided that a way to do this was to focus on a way to make physical toys as adaptable and as challenging as video games.

Their solution was Anki Drive, a slot car racing game that utilizes artificial intelligence and machine learning so that the vehicles actually adapt and learn how to best each other on the track. It impressed Apple so much that the Cupertino company invited the team to unveil the product on the world stage at the WWDC keynote this year. They've kept pretty quiet since then, but four months later, and they're ready to reveal the final Anki Drive product to the world. Join us after the break as we give you a tour of how it works, share our brief hands-on impressions and tell you how you can get your hands on one yourself.

As we detailed back in June, Anki Drive is primarily made up of three components: the track mat, the car and the iOS app. Underneath the black exterior of the mat is a special ink that's embedded with a positional code that tells the car where it is in relation to the track and to other vehicles. Each car has a tiny camera underneath that can read and translate that information along with a couple of motors that power the rear wheels, a 50Mhz microprocessor, a power button, a multicolor status LED on top, a rechargeable battery and a Bluetooth LE radio that communicates with the phone.

The iOS app is essentially the brains of the operation and not only lets you engage in gameplay by steering the vehicle and firing weapons, but also lets you build a "character" for each car, which we'll describe shortly. With these factors in place, the cars are able to determine, often within a few thousandths of a second, whether to take over, nudge, pass or block their opponents depending on the prescribed objective. These are not preprogrammed movements -- all the AI needs are certain parameters in which it can move, such as the speed of the vehicle and how fast it can steer -- and it'll think of the actions on its own.

The $199 Anki Drive starter kit comes with a large track mat measuring 102 inches wide by 42 inches long, a yellow car named "Kourai" and a silver one named "Boson." If you want additional cars, you can purchase the blue "Katal" and the red "Rho" for $69 each. Each car measures 3.1 inches long by 1.75 inches wide by 0.98 inch tall. Palatucci and Tappeiner tell us they paid great attention to detail when it came to the look and feel of the product -- even the mat itself is made out of a quality vinyl material that won't curl up at the ends when rolled out. This effort is especially apparent when it comes to the cars. They were specially designed by Harald Belker, a Hollywood designer famous for the 1996 Batmobile and the vehicles in Minority Report and Tron: Legacy. Each Anki car comes housed inside a highly durable charging pod that's designed for both portability and looks.

We had a chance to take the Anki Drive for a spin, and were definitely impressed by the build quality and style of the cars. Equally as impressive was setup -- as the cars are paired over Bluetooth LE, connecting the vehicles was easy, seamless and we were ready to go within seconds. You may assign the cars as either player- or AI-controlled, depending on if you're playing by yourself or with other people.

As soon as you're done, you can simply set the cars on the track and away they'll zoom; there's no need for you to hit an accelerate button at all. Indeed, the cars will even know just where to turn. We wanted to see if we could mess it up, so we picked up a car and turned it the other way around to see what would happen. The answer: It just flipped around and went back on the right direction. So if the cars can drive themselves, what do they need you for? Well, you can affect the race by tilting the phone either left or right to force it to make a wider or sharper turn. There are also special weapons you can deploy if you're in a competition -- a couple of starter ones include a tractor beam to slow down an opponent and a gun that you can use to mow them down afterward.

Once a game is over, each player is awarded a number of medals or points depending on how they did -- the better you do, the more points you get. You can then choose to spend those points on upgrades, like faster speeds or more energy or better weapons. And here's the kicker: those upgrades are permanently "installed" into each physical car, no matter where you take it or who plays it. That's the reason why each car has a "character," because each car will have unique characteristics and features depending on which upgrade path the player chooses for it. According to Palatucci, no one car will have all the upgrades, which forces you to choose just which talent tree is more important for your particular style of gameplay. Also, while the two base cars have the same skill set, "Katal" and "Rho" have expanded abilities like increased defense to add flavor and interest to the game.

The idea behind the permanent upgrades was brought from the world of video games, much like how you would level up a character and personalize it to your own tastes. The upgrades even persist if you decide to turn that car into an AI character, turning a regular AI opponent into a formidable one. It's all an effort to create a bond between the player and a physical item in a way that neither traditional toys nor video games can. "This way, you really have a sense of ownership of your car," says Palatucci. "And if you want to transfer your souped-up vehicle as a gift to your nephew or niece, you can."

Anki Drive is compatible with any iOS device with Bluetooth LE, which includes the iPhone 4s and up, the iPod touch (fifth generation onward), the iPad (third-gen or above) and the iPad mini. The starter kit and expansion cars will go on sale on the Anki website and Apple retail and online stores starting October 23rd. For even more information about Anki Drive, feel free to check out any of the videos embedded here or hit the source for more insight from the Anki team.