A company called Anki made its public debut last year on one of the best stages any company could hope for — Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC.
It had been operating quietly since February 2012 to refine its product — robotic toy cars that race around a special track, all controlled by an iPhone. It’s a bit like a real life version of Mario Kart: cars can earn powerups like a faster top speeds, or weapons for disabling opponents’ cars.
On the surface, it is nothing more than a toy company. But it got the attention of investment firms like Andreessen Horowitz, Two Sigma, and Index Ventures, who collectively invested $US50 million. Marc Andreessen calls it “one of the best robotics startups I’ve ever seen.” The company’s chief product officer gave Business Insider an update on their progress recently.
Its $200 starter kit comes with a racetrack and two cars, and customers have so far collectively raced 42 million laps around the track. We asked Anki for sales numbers, but it declined to give out that data.
“The first problem anyone faces in robotics is positioning, or determining where your robot is in its environment,” said Joe Palatucci, Anki’s Chief Product Officer. “Second is reasoning. You have to give the robot a goal and it needs to determine the sequence of actions it needs to take to accomplish that goal. Last are the controls — this is the nitty-gritty, where you actually execute a task and command voltages to motors that manipulate and move the robot.”
The entertainment factor can’t be denied — “We eat our own dog food quite often,” said Palatucci. “We have weekly tournaments at the office. It’s a lot of fun.”
Here’s a GIF from the WWDC presentation, in which Anki co-founder Boris Sofman demos Anki DRIVE.
The Anki DRIVE racetrack is made using a special ink that’s transparent in the infrared spectrum even though our eyes register it as black. The bottoms of the cars use special cameras and lights that let them see through the ink to the bits of information encoded there, and this information is sent back wirelessly to phones 500 times per second as a car moves around the track.
Players are racing against autonomous cars controlled by Anki software. The cars don’t have an onboard “brain” that enables them to “think” for themselves — this task is outsourced to the players’ phones, which receive positioning data from the cars, then beam instructions back to the cars via Bluetooth LE, a wireless communications standard. Since the phone knows the location of all cars on the track, it can plan routes and attack other vehicles with its cars’ weapons.
Implementing users’ smartphones this way saves Anki money because it can offload the heavy lifting of “thinking” to a device that users already own. And Anki’s software has proven to be a vicious opponent — when set to “hard” mode, the cars will beat a human player nine out of ten times.
When it comes to actually moving around a track, Anki’s cars are electronically and mechanically identical. They derive their unique characteristics from Anki’s software, which enables things like increased top speeds, the ability to execute 180-degree turns, or the ability to wield some weapons for blasting opponents off the track. “Because so much is driven by software,” said Palatucci, “we can easily send updates to the App Store that still expand the gameplay after a single hardware purchase.”
Palatucci and Sofman began work on Anki DRIVE about six years ago while pursuing their PhDs in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. After a lot of night and weekend effort, the company sought out a partnership with Apple, which it’s maintained for “the better part of a year.” Anki approached Apple because “mobile phones are central to what we are doing,” says Palatucci. “We thought their retail stores would be a perfect way for us to distribute, and Apple got behind Bluetooth LE two years before most others.”
Since its launch at WWDC, Anki DRIVE was named one of the best inventions of 2013 by TIME, and Anki even got some attention on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. In keeping with the commitment to continue adding to the cars’ software, the company released several new upgrades at the beginning of the year to make for an enhanced racing experience (there’s even a horn upgrade — “honk” it and opponent cars move out of your way).
Palatucci kept talk of the future a bit vague, but seems most excited by the fact that simple software updates can continue to make the game a repeatably enjoyable product: “It’s really exciting for potential new customers to realise Anki DRIVE is an evolving experience.”
Disclosure: Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is an investor in Business Insider.
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