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Anki Drive isn't just a car racing game, it's an iOS-based robotics platform

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When Anki Drive was demoed live on stage during Apple's WWDC, we saw a modern take on classic slot cars using iOS devices and Bluetooth-equipped toy vehicles -- basically a racing video game rendered with real world objects. But there's actually a lot more to it than that. Earlier this week, we talked briefly with Boris Sofman -- Anki's CEO and cofounder -- about the product and the startup's history and ambitions. While playing the game and taking pictures was off limits, we got the opportunity to examine the cars up close. Read on after the break.

Gallery: WWDC 2013: Anki Drive App | 5 Photos

Sofman and his team started working on the technology behind their product five years ago white studying robotics at Carnegie-Mellon university in Pittsburgh. Operating in secrecy, Anki successfully raised $50 million in funding and, in February 2012, received the support of VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. The company wants to revolutionize consumer robotics -- a lofty goal for sure. See, Anki Drive isn't just a car racing game, it's an iOS-based robotics platform.

There are three parts to Anki Drive. First there's the mat on which the racetrack is printed. It contains positional information optically encoded on its surface so that each car knows its exact position and speed. The cars feature two motors (one for each rear wheel), a small camera (pointing downwards), a Bluetooth 4.0 LE radio, a 50MHz microprocessor, a power button, a status LED and a rechargeable battery. Build quality was excellent on the prototypes we handled and we noticed some interesting details, like the rubber-coated rear wheels and additional weights built into the chassis for better grip. There are also battery charging contacts on the bottom of each car. Finally, there's the Anki Drive app, which runs on iPhone or iPod touch and functions as the game's AI and controller (if you want to drive yourself).

Here's how it works. Each car "reads" the positional information that's optically encoded on the mat's surface using the camera. There's enough data there for the cars to drive around the racetrack autonomously by continuously adjusting the speed of their motors. All of this happens up to 500 times per second thanks to the built-in microprocessor, and results in extremely fluid motion. The cars report their position and speed to the Anki Drive app via Bluetooth, and the AI calculates and sends new trajectories to each car several times per second based on the game's rules and the player's input. As such, the computational heavy lifting is handled by the iOS device, which makes perfect sense.

Anki Drive is expected to ship in time for the holidays for about $200, but it's unclear how many cars will be included at that price. In the meantime, the app's available as a free download from the App Store, even though it's mostly just a product showcase. While the company doesn't have immediate plans to support other platforms, it's open to exploring alternatives in the future. Sofman assured us that we'd be getting some proper hands-on time with Anki Drive soon, so stay tuned.

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