This looks like something you'd find in the Hot Wheels aisle at Walmart, but it's much more than that. It's a character from Anki Drive, an iOS-powered tech toy coming to Apple Stores and Apple.com on October 23. Its creators call it "the future of consumer electronics."
If anyone would recognize the future of consumer robotics, it's the founders of Anki, a trio who met while studying for their PH.D.s from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. CEO Boris Sofman, chief product officer Mark Palatucci and president Hanns Tappeiner formed Anki in 2010, with the goal of bringing the product of decades of scientific research in the field of robotics to the consumer space.
During an interview with Kotaku earlier this week, Sofman touched on the frustration many robot fans feel — their interests are outside of their reach. Aside from the odd clever building toys, most advanced artificial intelligence and robotics technology is far too expensive for the average consumer or enthusiast. It's reserved for researchers in well-funded labs, the sorts that upload impressive videos to YouTube and then disappear for months to fiddle with their creations.
"In graduate school, we focused on performance first. Two thousand dollar - or even $50,000 - sensors and computation to match were acceptable as long as the robots were fast, smart, and got the job done," wrote Sofman in a recent essay on Anki Drive. "These cost structures, however, don't transfer into consumer products. As a result, most consumer applications of robotics to date have not come close to the levels of intelligence we would expect. In fact, many are purely remote controlled, or have only the most basic elements of autonomy."
To the layman, Anki Drive might appear as another remote-controlled toy.
The kit, which goes on sale October 23 for $199, comes with a pair of characters — Sofman insisted on calling them characters instead of cars — the race track, and various accessories to keep the yellow Kourai and silver Boson maintained and charged. Two additional characters, Katal and Rho, will be available for $69 apiece.
The vehicles are quite striking.
That's due in large part to Hollywood designer Harald Belker. Belker designed. among other things, the 1996 Batmobile, as well as the vehicles in Tron Legacy, Minority Report, and the recent Total Recall remake.
They look like remote control vehicles, but they are in fact, sophisticated robots guided by an advanced artificial intelligence. Give them a goal, and they drive themselves. They use sensors to determine their position on the track, as well as the positions of enemy characters. They calculate possibilities and execute maneuvers based on those calculations.
The player controls the characters, to a certain extent, via low-power Bluetooth from their iPhone or iPad. They can monitor energy and speed and give basic orders. The characters battle with virtual weapons, reacting to damage as if they'd really been hit. The game can be played with multiple players, or a single player against AI-controlled characters.
In-between battles, players can use the interface to purchase upgrades.
It's not so much controlling the vehicles as it is interfacing with them. When you select upgrades for your character, the character will remember those upgrades. Just as the AI will retain moves and strategies it learns through battle, it also retains everything you teach it. You're a team — a unique player and, eventually, a completely unique character, tailored to your (and its) play style.
As Sofman laid out the details for me, I struggled to envision what he was describing. Later I realized that it was the bond between the operator and the robotic vehicle I wasn't understanding, and I won't fully understand it until I've played with Anki Drive for myself. Anki is working closely with Apple on the launch of the product, so hopefully there'll be live demos in Apple Stores to help give potential customers some insight. Otherwise it could be a very hard sell.
Until I've tried it for myself, it's hard for me to say if I feel this is the future of consumer robotics, but it certainly seems like Anki Drive is a step in the right direction.
Find out more about Anki Drive at Anki.com.