When Anki Drive debuted during an Apple press conference in 2013, its iPhone-controlled race cars looked like a solid entry in the long but mostly disappointing legacy of toy robots. This past year, Anki transcended its hype: Players have since put 323,000 miles on the little racers. The toys function like a dystopian vision of Google’s autonomous cars, steering themselves around a flat vinyl track that players lay out on a floor. Onboard sensors scan the track 500 times per second, and algorithms determine how aggressive and competent each vehicle is. From an app (now both iOS and Android), users fire virtual weapons in a sort of tiny death match, battling each other or computer-driven cars. But Anki is thriving because, unlike a Tonka truck, its cars evolve. The company pushed a series of free downloads last year that added game features and upgraded performance. By collecting data from the vehicles, Anki is able to track when user interest flags and how successful each strategically timed update is at pulling players back to the game. If this sounds like a lot of tech just for a little racing game, Anki CEO and cofounder Boris Sofman agrees. “We want to eventually leave entertainment,” he says, “and go into other areas where these approaches would apply, like the home or sports or even transportation.” And if he pulls it off, Anki will embody that old cliché: All important tech starts out looking like toys.
Watch Anki’s star debut, as a keynote presentation at Apple’s 2013 Worldwide Developer Conference:
[Photo & Video: Andrew Tingle]