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Anki unveils major update to its iPhone-controlled toy race cars with smart AI

Above: Anki now has 20 major upgrades for its cars.

Image Credit: Anki

Anki is revealing a major software update for its iPhone-controlled toy race cars which allow you to pit your driving skills against smart robotic cars.

The update is the first major upgrade for the innovative gaming product since it debuted on Oct. 23 for iOS users, and it is a reminder that Anki can completely overhaul its product through software upgrades. With Anki Drive, you use your iPhone to control a race car in competition with other artificial intelligence-driven cars speeding around a physical track. So far, consumers have driven more than 42 million laps with their Anki Drive cars.

Anki Drive combat system

Above: Anki Drive combat system

Image Credit: Anki

With Anki Drive, you roll out a mat on the ground that serves as a race track. You can place two cars down on the track that will start driving around on their own. Then those vehicles will adapt and learn how to compete better. You can then control the game through the iOS app, which enables you to steer your own car and fire vehicle weapons. While the cars can keep themselves racing around the track, you can make them do tight or wide turns.

Mark Palatucci, co-founder and chief product officer of the company, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the free software upgrade gives players up to 20 different upgrades to customize their cars, compared to just four when the product launched. You can get new weapons, support items, and other upgrades that let you be more strategic in how you play the game.

“We can change the gameplay, extend the engagement, and make it even more fun,” Palatucci said. “This update shows that a lot of what we are doing is driven by software.”

Palatucci said that the 42 million laps are the equivalent of doing the Monaco Grand Prix almost 540,000 times. And when players set the AI to “hard,” the AI car has beaten the human player nine out of ten times.

“That’s about the ratio that we wanted,” Palatucci said.

As for sales so far, Palatucci didn’t have exact numbers. But he said, “We had a super Christmas with Anki Drive. We had success as a fun family gaming experience.”

Anki engine screen

Above: Anki engine screen

Image Credit: Anki

One of the new features is Reverse Drive, which lets you do a 180-degree turn and change directions. You can fire a weapon to take someone out or just drive against the flow of traffic. There’s also a new Kinetic Brake, which brings you to a dead stop on the track by engaging an emergency brake. There’s an electromagnetic pulse that lets you damage opponents as you pass them. And there’s a horn to force others out of your way.

You are no longer locked into upgrade choices, as you can now switch between upgrades. The update will be available as a free upgrade on iOS. The game is sold via Apple’s own stores and Anki’s web site now. But Palatucci said that the company will add more retail locations this year.

Founded by robotics experts at Carnegie Mellon University, Anki has worked on the technology for six years. It has raised $50 million and it has 60 employees.

The design is clever. The track mat has an ink that is embedded with a code. That tells the car where it is on the track and where it is relative to other cars. Each car also a tiny camera under it that can read that information. (Yes, this is why the game costs $200.) The cars have a 50-megahertz processor, a multicolor LED, and Bluetooth low energy radio to communicate with the smartphone. Anki says the cars can drive so precisely that the real-world equivalent would be driving down a highway at 250 miles per hour with a tenth of an inch clearance on either side.

You can use the free iOS app to build the character of the car. The cars are able to pass up each other, block opponents, or nudge a rival. And they do so by thinking on their own. The game comes with two cars, one named Kourai and another called Boson. You can buy other cars for $69 each.

Anki Drive works with the iPhone 4S and up, the iPod Touch (fifth generation and up), the third-generation iPad and up, and the iPad Mini. 

The company’s backers are Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, and Two Sigma. The name Anki means to “learn by heart.”

Anki Drive weapons screen.

Above: Anki Drive weapons screen.

Image Credit: Anki

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