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Anki Drive levels up with new robotic cars, tracks and a race mode

Nicole Lee, @nicole

Arguably the coolest part about Anki Drive's robotic toy cars is that you could upgrade them over time with weapons and points as if they were character vehicles in a video game. Unlike a video game however, Anki's original system only had a single race track and just four available model cars (two were bundled in the starter kit). Further, there was only one mode of gameplay -- a Battle mode that encourages you to knock your opponent off the road -- which some might find a little tiresome after a while. Now, however, Anki has introduced not just two new tracks to the mix, but also a couple of new cars and a few software improvements that include the company's number one requested feature: race mode.

Gallery: Anki Drive's new race cars and tracks | 19 Photos

Race mode still lets you sabotage your fellow racers, of course, but this time, your primary objective is to be the first in 15, 30 or 45 laps. Think of it as the real-life version of Mario Kart, if you will. The gameplay is a little more strategic than regular Battle mode, as you have to decide if it's best to just race as fast as you can, or hang back a little to see if you can slow your competition down with a weapon at your disposal. In addition to the new racing mode, there's a bunch of new changes to the UI itself. For example, there'll now be an in-app scoreboard so you can see who's ahead and who's behind you in a race. There's also now a "boost" mechanic that you can earn that'll let you zoom ahead the rest at incredible speed. This software update will be rolled out today for the entire Anki Drive system -- both the original set and the new tracks and vehicles, which we'll explain in more detail below.

Let's start with the two new race tracks. One is Crossroads, which features a looping intersection, and the other is Bottleneck, which, you guessed it, has a narrow neck in part of the road. If you're wondering what took Anki so long to come up with these new race courses, it's because making them compatible with Anki's machine learning cars isn't as easy as just laying paint on a piece of vinyl. While the two new race courses have the same sort of positional code embedded in the ink as the original, their unique designs require a special encoding scheme for the cars to grok. According to Anki's president Hanns Tappeiner, the encoding scheme for the intersection part of Crossroads and the narrow section of Bottleneck is completely different from the rest of the track, and the AI of the cars had to be improved to handle them. "For example, figuring out whether to stop before the intersection and wait, or to zoom through it fast [...] that's something new we had to develop." In the case of Bottleneck, Anki had to educate the AI that it's better to be in the center rather than the edge.

As for the gameplay differences between the two tracks, Tappeiner says that Crossroads is a lot more strategic than the original. "You can zoom through the intersection or stop in front and wait for another car to pass by so that you can deploy your weapon... it creates a fun chaos." Bottleneck, on the other hand, is a "track for people who love to race" because you need to be mindful of where you are on the road to gain maximum speed.

To go along with the new tracks, Anki is also announcing a couple of new specialized vehicles. Hadion, the orange model above, is designed for speed. It has less armor and lighter weaponry than the rest, but it's the fastest and most nimble car. "It's really good at straights and quick around corners," Tappeiner told us. But perhaps what really makes it valuable is that the Hadion comes with the Turbo Boost speed option bundled right in without you having to earn it as a separate skill. Next is Corax, which is arguably the beast of the lot. It's heavily armored, and it's also the only car that can deploy two weapons at the same time. Because it's so powerful, the car is actually locked when you first get it. "You need to use it as an AI car first -- you need to beat it in order to win it."

To those who already have the original Anki Drive, you should get the updated software with the new race mode starting today. If you want to snag one of the new cars, both the Corax and the Hadion are cost $69 each. As for the race tracks, you'll have to wait until May 6th to get those -- they'll be available for $99 each.

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