The Hottest High-Tech Toy of 2013: Anki’s iPhone-Driven Robot Cars

Xconomy Boston — 

If you had wandered up to the second floor of the Apple store in San Francisco on a Thursday evening a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen an unusual spectacle. The big wooden tables were cleared of the usual iPads and MacBooks, and in their place visitors had laid out large sheets of black vinyl printed to look like miniature speedways.

Zooming around on these high-tech tablecloths were squadrons of battery-powered model cars, each about twice the size of a Hot Wheels car. Groups of customers and Apple salespeople stood around the tables holding iPhones, cheering and hollering as the cars executed loop after loop.

The cars moved incredibly fast, hugging the curves with g-forces that would crush any human driver tiny enough to fit inside. Yet the cars weren’t running in tracks or slots, and weren’t hemmed in by walls; nor did any of them carry the computing power needed to drive on their own.

The real secret to the toy cars’ speed and agility was inside the players’ iPhones, which acted as the cars’ offboard brains. Five hundred times per second, each car sensed its position and speed, flashed the information to a paired iPhone over a Bluetooth wireless connection, and received instructions about how to adjust the precision motors on its back wheels to keep from careening off the track—or, sometimes, to deliberately slam into an opponent.

This is Anki Drive, and it’s likely to be one of the most sought-after holiday gifts this season, at least in the homes of families with multiple iPhones or iPads. The $200 starter kit and the $70 expansion cars are available only online or at Apple stores. (As Tolstoy said, all Apple families are alike; each Android family is unhappy in its own way.)

Anki employees are touring the continent this month, stopping at Apple stores in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Montreal to show off Anki Drive. The startup famously debuted on stage this summer at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, where it won an endorsement from Apple CEO Tim Cook as one of the first companies “using iOS devices and the iOS platform to bring artificial intelligence and robotics into our daily lives.”

Anki Drive is, indeed, something new on the scene. It’s partly a physical toy, partly an ever-evolving mobile video game, and partly an escapee from one of the country’s leading academic robotics institutes. And to hear co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman tell it, it’s also the first in what Anki hopes will be a series of surprising new applications for intensively software-driven robots in consumer life.

The common characteristics of these future products, in Sofman’s mind: “Relatively simple and elegant hardware; incredibly complicated software; and Web and wireless connectivity to be able to continually expand the experience over time.” My fellow tech journalist Austin Carr put it all perfectly in the headline for his recent Fast Company story: Anki Drive Is Racing Google, Not Other Toy Makers.

To learn more, I visited Sofman at Anki’s San Francisco headquarters recently. This isn’t some wacky hardware startup: befitting the $50 million in venture backing the company has raised from Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, and Two Sigma Ventures, Anki’s 50 employees work in swank offices on the 15th floor of a highly secure downtown office tower. But there’s a comfortable game room set aside for demos and press interviews, and that’s where Sofman talked me through the genesis of the company at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, where he and his co-founders Mark Palatucci and Hanns Tappeiner were PhD students.

“It started as a way for us to moonlight and avoid our theses,” Sofman jokes.

Anki Founders Mark Palatucci, Boris Sofman, and Hanns Tappeiner

Anki co-founders (left to right) Mark Palatucci, Boris Sofman, and Hanns Tappeiner.

Sofman’s own work at CMU focused on an autonomous vehicle: a $600,000 self-driving, off-road, all-terrain vehicle nicknamed Crusher, with applications in agriculture, exploration, and military reconnaissance. Palatucci worked on machine-learning algorithms for finding patterns in MRI data, while Tappeiner developed force-feedback haptic interfaces for mobile robots.

“The realization that we had was that in the Robotics Institute, there are amazing technologies all around, and people working on the most incredible things—pathfinding, perception, vision, manipulation,” Sofman says. “But almost all of these technologies were focused on pure research, defense, space, agriculture, or healthcare applications. Almost none of it was being focused on consumers. That was the impulse for us to focus on a consumer application, given how quickly the hardware landscape was changing. You can do things for a price point now that would never have been possible before.”

Specifically, Sofman says, it’s getting cheaper to solve fundamental robotics problems like positioning, reasoning, and execution. “You can take almost any problem in robotics and break it down into those three challenges,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an industrial robot moving a piece of steel or characters on a track in the living room. [Sofman calls the Anki Drive cars “characters”—more on that below.] You have to understand the physical world, use software to understand what you want to do, and then make it execute accurately.”

In the past, roboticists have solved the positioning problem using expensive equipment like motion-tracking cameras or lidar (the laser-based sensors on Google’s self-driving cars and many other prototype robotic vehicles). To provide accurate positioning in a $200 consumer product, Anki went in a different direction.

The black vinyl track in the Anki starter kit is imprinted with a microcode, written in a special ink that’s invisible to the naked eye. Each Anki Drive car includes an optical sensor—it’s actually the same one used in the front-facing camera of an iPhone—that samples these codes 500 times per second. The radio chip in the car sends the location information to the player’s smartphone, which then sends speed-adjustment instructions back to the two rear-wheel motors (they work independently, providing steering).

The Anki Drive cars (left to right): Kourai, Katal, Boson, and Rho.

The Anki Drive cars (left to right): Kourai, Katal, Boson, and Rho.

In other words, the cars only know where they are when they’re on the encoded racetrack; on an old-fashioned tabletop, they’re dead in the water. If you were an autonomy purist, you might call that cheating. But to Sofman, it’s an illustration of the practical compromises that will be needed to bring more robots into the real world.

“The art of thinking about the problem and how you can constrain it is the interesting thing,” he says. “We are constraining it not a huge amount, but making the problem much more tractable.”

What also makes a system like Anki Drive more tractable—and at the same time, more fun to use—is that almost all of the computation has been offloaded to the user’s iPhone or iPad, which doubles as the controller for each car. That meant Sofman and his co-founders were able to add video-game elements to Anki Drive, creating a hybrid product that feels novel.

The toy industry, Sofman argues, has been stagnant since the 1960s; the G.I. Joe and Barbie sets kids play with today are pretty similar to the ones their parents had 40 years ago. “But the industry’s big asset is that toys are real,” Sofman says. “You can touch them and hold them and there is this physical connection you can’t replicate on the screen. On the other side of the fence, though, video games is a pretty amazing industry to watch, because the characters are deep inside a world that expands. It can be different from week to week. And there are always many characters, and their interactions create the diversity of situations and make things fun.” These two industries have been “poking at each other” for a long time, Sofman says, but haven’t really melded.

By the time Sofman, Palatucci, and Tappeiner were starting their moonlighting project, the smartphone revolution was in full swing, providing a way to bridge the gap. “We set out to create this new category where you could literally program video games on top of characters in the real world,” he says.

They decided early on that their characters would be cars. “We love cars,” Sofman says. “There is something everlasting about their appeal to people. Everybody from a 4-year-old to an 80-year-old loves them.”

But it took the better part of four years, from 2008 to 2012, to come up with toy-sized cars that would be nimble, perceptive of their environments, and affordable—and, of course, to write the software needed to make them come alive.

“If you get a really high level of perception of what’s happening in the physical world, you can have a virtual representation of it inside the game,” Sofman says. “That is one of the key enablers. That, plus the motion controller to steer around curves and control drift.” The software also has to compensate for factors like whether the track is on a hardwood floor or a shag carpet; whether there’s dust on the tires; and how much each motor has degraded.

I realize I’m geeking out about the underlying technology, but hey, that’s why you read Xconomy. Now for a word about the game itself. Anki Drive is most enjoyable when two or more people are playing, though one person can play against the AI. Software keeps your car on the track automatically as it circles, but you can maneuver toward the inside or the outside of the track by tilting your iPhone left or right, and speed up or slow down by tilting it forward or backward.

As Sofman demonstrates in this video, you can simply race against competitors, or you can battle them by activating weapons like a railgun or a tractor beam. The cars spin out if they’re hit, and lights and sounds mimic gunfire and explosions. (This isn’t a game for the non-violent.)

The cars come in four different designs, and while the technology inside is the same, they’re programmed with individual personalities and capabilities—Boson is an aggressive attacker, equipped with a gravity beam to slow competitors, while Rho is faster and possesses shields. Then there’s Kourai, the “agile striker,” and Katal, the “aggressive defender.”

Giving the $70 cars individual personalities is a neat (and potentially lucrative) idea. But what makes the game even more interesting is that these personalities evolve over time in response to the human player. Just as in a video game, achievements unlock upgrades like higher top speeds, faster acceleration, and new weapons. Those capabilities are stored in the cars’ own memories, not in the paired devices. Sofman thinks well-trained cars might eventually become tradeable or collectible.

The Anki Drive starter kits and expansion cars went on sale in October, so it’s too early to tell whether the product is going to be a hit, though I’m betting it will be. If it is, Anki’s next challenge will be to prove that it’s got more tricks up its sleeve.

“Toys are a notoriously hit-driven,” Sofman acknowledges. “You don’t know if it’s going to be successful, or if it’s going to be a two-year fad. We are trying to bypass all of that by making sure we are not competing on the same elements that toys traditionally compete on. We are coming to the party with this huge asset of defining everything in software, which makes it possible to use these Web-enabled devices as conduits for more and more depth.”

The Anki Drive starter kit includes a track, two cars, and chargers. The free Anki Drive iOS app can be downloaded from Apple's iTunes App Store.

The Anki Drive starter kit includes a track, two cars, and chargers. The free Anki Drive iOS app can be downloaded from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

Already, Anki is working on a new release of the Anki Drive app that provides more character development for the vehicles. And it’s safe to predict that the company will offer more styles of expansion cars and larger, more complex tracks.

But in the end, Anki isn’t a racing-game company. It’s not even a toy company. “I personally feel like we could grow into a really amazing, successful company based purely on entertainment, but that is not the vision,” Sofman says. “We are going to make sure we lead in entertainment, but we are also able to be a general AI and robotics company, where the common theme is the technologies and flavors and approaches we are using, and the ability to have surprising applications in the real world, independent of category or industry.”

Anki has at least one future competitor in its sights already: Bedford, MA-based iRobot, which is known for making cleaning robots for the home, bomb-defusing robots for battlefields, and medical telepresence robots for the clinic. Sofman briefly worked at iRobot before graduate school, and he says Anki is pursuing a wholly different philosophy.

“They are very big on behavioral robotics,” Sofman says. “Rod Brooks [iRobot’s co-founder] was really well known in the 1980s for focusing on simple, instinctual reactions—if you bump something, it makes the robot go in a different direction. The Roomba is a mechanically a beautiful system, but on the AI side it’s just small building blocks of these behavioral reactions. That worked really well when computation was incredibly limited. When you look at applications that require a really deep connection between the system and the environment, with autonomous navigation, it’s more about centralized cognition and thinking about sensor data.”

The best short-term outcome for Anki, Sofman says, would be to succeed so well with the racing game that when the company decides to enter some adjacent market, “we have a lot of capital in terms of our reputation and resources.” Other robotics companies, he says, “make very good mechanical systems—but not with the AI, the supporting intelligence, that understands the environment and makes the products come to life. That feels like a massive opportunity.”

Special thanks to Katelyn Bryant at The Outcast Agency for her videography assistance.

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3 responses to “The Hottest High-Tech Toy of 2013: Anki’s iPhone-Driven Robot Cars”

  1. Dan says:

    Perhaps there is something missing from this article but how is closing a servo loop over a radio link “artifiial intelligence?”

    • Phil Bastanchury says:

      It’s the body-mind duality. You have an adaptive video game which in itself doesn’t qualify as AI. And you also have a device that responds to Bluetooth signals from a controller. That too is not AI. When that device has a sensor that gathers environmental info, sends it to the controlling program which then internally models the environment and engages in planning and decision making, however, then you’ve crossed fully into Robotic AI.