Anki made its debut in June at Apple’s WWDC, where the San Francisco-based startup unveiled its first product, Anki Drive, futuristic toy cars that can race around autonomously and be played with via iPhone. On stage, Apple CEO Tim Cook praised the company for “creating an entirely new set of experiences,” and predicted it was “going to be super successful,” a high blessing that all but positioned Anki as the Hot Wheels for the modern age.
But as Anki cofounder Boris Sofman tells Fast Company, his ambitions are far grander. His miniature, autonomous cars aren’t just built for childish amusement–they’re actually a play to compete with companies like Google in a slew of mass markets. “For us, the big vision is that we’re a robotics and artificial intelligence company–not necessarily a toy company,” Sofman says. “[We’re] using this as a stepping stone to do more advanced things.”
Today, Anki launched Drive to the world, and, even as a stepping stone, it’s an incredibly compelling product. Users can pit their cars against their AI-powered counterparts, zooming around a track and competing in a variety of scenarios–races, battles, and so forth–while using the iPhone as a steering wheel and control center. Sofman and team like to call it “the first video game in the real world.” But the larger promise of Anki is the underlying technology it’s inventing in the process, which could make the startup competitive in a whole host of industries. “This is a way to zigzag through a lot of really compelling products to get to the Holy Grails: full-blown autonomous driving, having [robotic] helpers around the house, health-care applications,” Sofman beams.
Anki Drive itself is pretty remarkable. To start, just unroll the Anki track on the floor and place the Bluetooth-enabled cars on the mat. You can set which ones act as the computer via iPhone and which ones you’d like to control. As the race begins, the AI-controlled cars will start circling the track autonomously. The cars are smart enough to use algorithms to both figure out which direction to go and how fast and most efficiently to get there. In Anki Drive’s free companion app, users can upgrade their vehicles with Mario Kart-style features: higher top speeds, better acceleration, weapons. The virtual changes are reflected in the physical world: If your car “shoots” and virtually hits another car on the track, the “lasers” will knock it off the runway. There are even tractor-beam features, and Sofman says the company will continue to add more scenarios and digital components down the road, updated from the cloud. (Oil slicks!)
As a toy, it’s fun, certainly novel, and likely to be a hot seller this holiday season. But there are some potential downsides, if I can channel my inner child for a moment. For one, you can’t fully control your own car; rather, Anki found it more practical to use artificial intelligence to assist you in navigating the track. Thus, there are only a few essential controls: Users can sway their iPhones forward and back to control speed, and from side to side to maneuver to the outside or inside of the track. But you won’t be screeching tires in stylish, Tokyo Drift-style turns: Anki says those would be too difficult for the user to perform. (And for good reason: If you scaled up the cars to real-world proportions, Anki says it would be the equivalent of driving down the highway at 250 miles per hour, with a “tenth-of-an-inch clearance on either side.”)
What’s more, at $199, Anki Drive is expensive, especially since it requires an iOS device to use–potentially prohibitive for kids who don’t own an iPhone or iPod Touch, and whose parents don’t want to share their expensive Apple gadgets with them for extended periods.
Still, it’s likely kids will love racing their cars around the track and battling friends or the computer (though users won’t actually see tractor beams and lasers firing; the cars produce lights, sound, and motion effects to simulate these interactions). Just watching the AI-controlled cars speeding around and making decisions on their own is pretty mesmerizing. Each car is cleverly tied to its owner, meaning whatever modifications you make via the app will work even if you take the vehicle to a friend’s house. Anki embedded game mechanics into its app–for earning points or badges and building a user profile–which has virtually limitless potential for customization. It’s also a probable avenue to selling hardware accessories. (Only $69 for expansion cars, Mom!) Says Sofman, “This should never be confused with a Hot Wheels set.”
More promising, however, is Anki Drive’s potential as a foundation for future products. Many on the Anki crew came from Carnegie Mellon University’s prestigious Robotics Institute, where Sofman himself earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. He sees more world-changing promise to Anki’s innovations. “In some sense, with Anki Drive, we’re making these really powerful building blocks that we can reuse over and over again: wireless communications, path planning, positioning systems, high-speed dynamics,T and control algorithms,” Sofman says. “When we do product three and product four and five, we’ll be able to do things that were never possible before.”
In other words, don’t expect Anki to just continue making toy cars in the future. Anki Drive is more so a Trojan Horse–a way to develop and foster the complicated technology by generating revenue through consumer-friendly applications. “When you think about robotics and AI, you think about technologies that get locked away and used for NASA or defense or agriculture or industrial applications–very rarely in consumer products,” Sofman says. “We wanted to work on things that weren’t just going to disappear into some research demo.”
Where could Anki go next? Sofman drops some hints, related to how the technology allows hardware to be location aware, with behavior programmable by software. “Algorithms for positioning and path planning . . . [These are] the exact same algorithms we could use for driving a car or for [having] a robotic arm pick up a can,” he teases. “Literally, instead of thinking about speed, position, time, acceleration, think about elbow angle, shoulder angle, wrist angle, and arm angle.”
The secret sauce of Anki, Sofman adds, is that it’s able to make this technology accessible and financially feasible. “Google, they do positioning too [in their driverless cars], but they use a $50,000 laser sensor and a high-end GPS [system] and a bunch of hardware,” he says. “For us, we’re using a handful of dollars to do this [with Anki Drive] in any living room or office space. We had to solve these problems and do so at a price point that made sense for the mass market–which was one of our biggest challenges.”
No wonder Google has become Anki’s biggest competitor for talent. “A lot of the guys on their driverless car [team] are actually from our department [at Carnegie Mellon],” Sofman says.
For now, Sofman says part of the team is working on Anki Drive, while others are developing future products and technology. With more than 40 employees and $50 million in venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz and other top-tier firms, the company has come a long way since Sofman and his cofounders were back at Carnegie Mellon, jury-rigging their first robotic car prototype together in a messy lab.
Recalls Sofman, “Back then, we’d get it driving about 20 centimeters a second, and we’d be like, ‘It’s so fast! Look at it go!’ “