Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Anki Brings Videogames to Life With Robotic Toy Cars

Anki co-founder Hanns Tappeiner places two palm-sized toy cars onto a flat, rolled-out mat and gives them a little shove. They start zooming around the inside of a D-shaped track that’s printed on the mat. They accelerate next to each other, weave and leapfrog each other, and speed along perilously close to one another. They’re showing off.

Tappeiner’s co-founder, Boris Sofman, reaches down and grabs one of the cars off the vinyl track to interrupt the sequence, then places it back down. The car zooms around the track to catch up with its buddy and goes back into demonstrating its maneuvers.

That’s the first stunt of Anki Drive. Two little toys that look like they belong on any car-loving kid’s shelf seem to magically come to life. The only human intervention is opening up the Anki app on an iPod so it can run the car demo mode over Bluetooth low-energy signal.

You could say Anki is not like anything you’ve seen before — but it’s totally like what you’ve seen before. It’s just that, in the past, the racing cars would have been on a video-game console or at a carnival. This is on your living-room floor.

The second demo of Anki puts people in charge of the cars, so they can race each other, and shoot each other down, and draw in the other cars with tractor beams. Each player needs an iOS device with the Anki app, which vibrates and plays sound effects in sync with the cars on the track, so you can feel and hear your car get shot. Meanwhile, down on the track, your car’s lights flicker and it slows to a stop.

The third demo of Anki pits a human driver against a car being driven with artificial intelligence. It’s just about impossible to beat. The AI car seems to have a personality — it’s a hard-edged, ruthless competitor that keeps beating everyone else and then doing arrogant victory dances.

Two of the three Anki co-founders, Boris Sofman and Hanns Tappeiner

Anki Drive goes on sale online and in Apple Stores for $199 on Oct. 23. Each kit includes a mat and two cars, and the app is free. Additional cars cost $69. Players can win additional capabilities for their cars — like land mines to throw or rail guns to shoot — the more and better they play the game.

Anki is clearly an expensive toy for very lucky children, but Sofman said he wants it to be more than that.

“It’s not that people lose their attachment to physical things, it’s that their capabilities haven’t kept up with the virtual world,” Sofman said. And Anki is not just for kids, Sofman argued.

Though the Anki track has no railings — it’s just printed on a mat, remember — the cars stay on it. The software that keeps the cars on the track is an equalizer for people with different ages and motor skills.

The trick behind all this is impressive artificial-intelligence software and robotics. “When people talk about robotics, they talk about something that looks like a robot,” said Tappeiner. This looks like a toy, not a metal humanoid.

This is the first product Anki has ever sold, so it’s hard to know whether the system will be sturdy, or have some weird bugginess, or sell out before many people have the chance to try it.

Tappeiner and Sofman have been working on this project for six years, from when they were PhD students at Carnegie Mellon; they’ve raised $50 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures and Two Sigma; attracted Batmobile designer Harald Belker away from Hollywood projects to design their cars; launched onstage at WWDC as a guest of Apple CEO Tim Cook; and hired a team of 50 people in San Francisco.

The next step is the biggest: Launching a product for the holiday season.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik