Hot Wheels' new AR track turns toy racing into a warzone

Fire missiles and create oil slicks on a virtual track to win real world races.

Engadget / Kris Naudus

Hot Wheels may be known for little die-cast cars, but celebrating its 50th birthday this year doesn't mean it's stuck in the past. The brand's already given us AI-controlled racers and cars on virtual courses, but the one thing that's gone largely untouched is its signature plastic track. This year, Hot Wheels mixes things up with Augmoto, which takes the classic racing set and throws augmented reality on top of it. Now, road hazards and collisions can now look as cool as they do in your head, and each race becomes a lot more strategic.

On a standard Hot Wheels track, cars are placed in a mechanical launcher and shot onto the track to zoom around until they either reach the end or just run out of kinetic energy. There's not a lot of skill or strategy involved in winning a race; it ultimately it comes down to luck. Products like Hot Wheels AI and Mindracers tried to rectify this with virtual hazards to trip up your opponent, and Augmoto expands on that idea with an AR overlay.

Players control the race from an app but, unlike Hot Wheels AI, they aren't driving the vehicle directly. Instead, they control the plastic course via a Bluetooth connection. From the app, players can recharge the car and switch the track it's on, but they can't control its speed or direction. Each racer has a tiny motor to make the wheels spin, with each charge good for around 40 laps before it runs out of juice. If the car starts to slow down, the player can make a pit stop, sending them back to the starting gate to charge for up to 30 seconds. That may not seem like a lot of time but, as each lap only takes two seconds to complete, your opponents gain a pretty big lead.

Hot Wheels Augmoto loops

Aside from the pit stop area, the other key feature of the track is a pair of silver loops-the-loops. While they certainly look cool and it's fun to watch cars go through them, they're also important to the AR experience. If the player times it right they can switch their car to the loop -- the switch is only open for a second, so it's easy to miss your chance. If they succeed in making it through, the app grants them a virtual attack to use against their opponent.

The in-app rockets work a lot like the shells in Mario Kart, inflicting penalties like oil slicks and fires; in the real world this makes the starting gate hold the affected vehicle in place until the driver plays a related mini-game on their device. The games are very simple, usually asking the player to perform simple tasks like tapping the screen to put a fire out.

Hot Wheels Augmoto track

Virtual hazards aren't the only ones a player has to deal with, though. Just like any other Hot Wheels track, there's always a chance of the car flying off on its own. There's also a section of the course where it narrows down to one lane -- should both cars approach at the same time, one will be knocked off.

The app doesn't keep constant tabs on the vehicles' positions: There are no trackers inside the cars themselves and the players' devices may not always be pointed at the course so it can't track them with the camera. Instead, the app registers whenever the real car passes through the starting gate and removes the racer from the virtual track when it fails to complete a lap within a few seconds. To get back into the game, the car needs to be dropped back into the starting gate. The wheels will keep spinning even when the car falls off the track, so it's best to grab it before the vehicle wanders off, or wastes too much energy.

The $120 basic set will include the plastic track and two cars; Hot Wheels will make more vehicles available after Augmoto's launch this fall.

Check out the rest of our coverage from Toy Fair 2018 here.