I’d almost forgotten about them: a crew of colorful toy cars you drop on a stylish track-etched mat, then watch as they scoot around on their own, intelligently weaving and shifting, angling for better positioning, smartly avoiding each other while acing red-lined curves at breakneck (for a bunch of toy cars, anyway) speeds.
They’re from a company called Anki, not to be confused with Ankh, which is an Egyptian hieroglyphic character used in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, a 1980s-era computer roleplaying game.
But there’s your hook: Anki’s eclectic experiment, dubbed Anki Drive, resembles a slot cars game — one that happens to conceal advanced robotics wizardry. You might not get that, watching a bunch of Hot Wheels-wannabes scoot around a track, sometimes manipulated by humans standing nearby with phones or tablets. Haven’t we had remote control race cars for decades? Aren’t we now piloting drones that can hover way, way up in the sky — drones capable of guiding people around like Halo‘s 343 Guilty Spark? What’s the big deal about a handful of plasticky race cars?
Like the slot cars you grew up with, you can hold Anki Drive cars in your hand. But each car has advanced artificial intelligence and robotics built in that gives it unique personality traits and characteristics that evolve the more you play.
Similar to a video game, your character evolves over time. You get to upgrade with new weapons, you can play offensively or defensively, and the cars even react to each other. So if you blast your pulse carbine towards the car in front of you, his car will actually spin out.
The cars can be controlled using an iOS device, letting you keep tabs on a car’s performance and fiddle with metrics like positioning, speed, weaponry and so forth. The cars can even engage in virtual Cars Wars-style battles, sort of like laser tag only the lasers are radio frequency signals conveyed via Bluetooth.
Anki says they’ll be available in the Apple Store in the U.S. and Canada as well as from Anki.com starting October 23; $199 gets you the starter set — two cars and the track — and additional cars can be purchased for $69 a piece.
My colleague Harry McCracken sat down with Anki Drive’s creators this summer. Give that a read if you have a few minutes, because while it’d be easy to mistake Anki for a novelty toy company (especially given how much more sophisticated and expansive video game racers can be than this), Anki is really a robotics and artificial intelligence enterprise. Those cars are canny little robots, not rote toys, and what you’re looking at isn’t just the advent of some multi-stage effort to reconquer slot racing, it’s the vanguard of future artificially intelligent devices capable of doing exponentially more than resting passively in our hands and pockets.