If you ever wondered what a video game would look like if it crossed over from the virtual into the physical world, Anki thinks it has the answer.
The San Francisco startup, which developed a technology platform that mixes robotics and consumer-grade artificial intelligence, formally launched its first product on Thursday, a racing game called Anki Drive that will go on sale on October 23.
Anki Drive will cost $200 and be available through Anki's Web site, as well as in all Apple Stores in the United States and Canada and on Apple.com. As CNET wrote at the time, Anki first burst into the spotlight in June when Apple honored it with a coveted presentation slot during the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote event.
Although Anki Drive is the company's first product, and the one that may well make or break the company, CEO Boris Sofman is clear that what Anki is really developing is a platform that transcends the virtual and the physical, mashing the two up and allowing users to play in both worlds at the same time.
In Anki Drive, players can race against cars controlled both by other people and the game's artificial intelligence system. During a demonstration at Anki's headquarters, Sofman showed how the AI-controlled cars interacted in real time with those being run by actual people. Indeed, the response time of the AI-controlled cars, whether it was to attack a slower car, or to evade an attack itself, was instantaneous. That's thanks to built-in components that check their driving logic 500 times a second, and convey positioning information to the car's wheels every 2 milliseconds.
To Sofman, Anki Drive is evidence of the platform's ability to put a physical layer on top of a virtual one. "What we're doing at Anki is using robotics and artificial intelligence to do something that's never been done before," Sofman said. "We can actually program video games on top of physical characters in the real world."
The race to bring AI and robotics to consumers
One major element of Anki's platform is that every aspect of the game play is defined by software. That means, Sofman explained, that everything, from the rules of the game to the interactions between cars to the customization of the cars, can be updated and expanded over time. And that's key for a product that at its core could be seen as nothing more than a toy racing game. "We can expand that experience just by pushing new software updates," Sofman said. "When we release additional characters and environments, those will just seamlessly integrate into the game, and [players] will always have the most complete ecosystem."
One thing that will be a bit harder to update, but which is key to the functionality of Anki Drive is the physical race track. The 3.5 foot by 8.5 foot roll-up track is covered in special ink and optics that allow the cars to constantly check where they are. And that, in turn, helps the cars -- regardless of whether they're being driven by a person or by the system's AI -- stay stable, even as they race around the oval at high speeds. "It allows the [cars] to understand exactly where they're located," Sofman said, "and to drive incredibly precisely and execute any maneuver they want."
Just the beginning
There's no way to know, of course, how well Anki Drive will do. But with $50 million in venture funding to work from, Anki likely has plenty of time to develop its platform. For now, the company isn't saying what its next products will be. Despite the fact that it's launching with a game, though, there's no guarantee it will even make games in the future.
Still, games are an ideal genre for a technology that enables software where physical objects can be blended with a virtual environment. Then again, so are any number of tools, and there's no reason to believe that Anki -- which is named after the Japanese word for learning by heart -- won't develop products in a number of different fields. Sofman said that one of Anki's most valuable assets is that its team has developed "a lot of amazing technological building blocks we can use over and over again."
In order to control the cars in Anki Drive, players must first download Anki's mobile app, currently available only for iOS. The cars communicate with each other, and with the app, via Bluetooth LE, meaning that there is no pairing required, and that the cars' response to moves made in the app are instant even from distances of 30 or 40 feet.
Within the app, players can choose whether to take on another person, or an AI challenger, and can then drive their car, as well as operate their weapons. There are guns to shoot, as well as tractor beams used to "pull in" another car, Sofman said. Though this is all carried out with physical cars, these are essential elements of standard driving video games. But what's very different is the way the AI-driven cars are able to navigate and respond to what's going on around them, in real time.
As players spend time with Anki Drive, they earn points, and can then redeem those points for new capabilities and weapons. Though this presents Anki with the opportunity to make money with in-app purchases, Sofman said the company has no plans to pursue that revenue model. Rather, he said, the goal is to give players plenty of incentive to play more and customize their cars.