A mobile game in real life

Imagine this: a mobile racing game that uses a physical track and physical cars that you can place right down on the floor of your living room, and control everything that’s going on in front of you through an app on your iPhone. Oh yeah, and the cars can shoot weapons and wipe each other off the tracks in real life as well, and the machines themselves even get smarter the more that you play. It sounds like something you’d see in a movie about what the future of video games could one day hold, doesn’t it?

Well guess what? It turns out that such an imaginative game actually exists. It’s called Anki Drive, and it’s coming out next week to change everything you thought you knew about mobile games. I recently had a chance to speak with Mark Palatucci, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Anki, and Hanns Tappeiner, Co-Founder and President at Anki, to find out just how their innovative studio was able to bring the technical world of robotics into the mobile games space for a truly unique consumer experience.

The building blocks for Anki Drive were first put in place over six years ago, when a few PhD students at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute began drafting up ways that robotics technologies could be taken out of the labs and brought into people’s lives as consumer products. But of course, the first biggest stumbling block was the cost: most robotics equipment was traditionally far too expensive to sell to the average consumer. But as the overall hardware of the technology world began to get cheaper over the years, the idea of a “mobile game in the real world” that was powered by robotics became much more conceivable. However, Anki would still need to deal with the challenge of creating a robotics product that could work 100% of the time in people’s homes with uncontrolled conditions, and outside of the contained lab environment.

Just after talking with Anki for only a few minutes, it becomes increasingly clear that Anki Drive is so much more than a simple tech demo or hardware gimmick: just as much thought and attention was put into the game’s design as it was the technology itself, from the classy look of the cars (designed by Harald Belker of Tron Legacy and Total Recall fame), to the high quality and rollable race track, or mat, which the team dedicated a great deal of time towards getting just right. The primary focus of the project was to bridge the gap between physical entertainment, which features mostly static objects, and the interactive world of video games, which has been known to take advantage of every new technology that’s become available to the masses. Palatucci tells me that a big part of the appeal with Anki Drive has to do with the emotional connection that exists between a person and a physical object that they can hold in their hands.

The intricate technology that powers Anki Drive was put in place as a means of using robotics to solve three common problems, which Tappeiner outlines for me: Positioning, in which you know where everything is located on the map and where you are in relation to it (i.e. your car’s location on the map); Reasoning, which refers to the plan of action you start drafting once you know where everything is located (such as passing cars, taking turns, etc.); and Execution, which involves pulling off that plan with the utmost precision. When scaled up to real world parameters, Tappeiner tells me that it would be like the cars in the game are traveling at 250mph down the freeway, and so even the slightest calculations are now crucial in making the entire product run like a well-oiled machine.

Anki Drive

The game comes with an initial Battle Mode at launch, in which the cars will race against one another and use a deep and innovative weapons system to try and blow each another off the track. This is easily one of the coolest components I’ve seen in all of the Anki Drive demo videos, in which imaginary bullets fly out of your physical car, sending all of your opponents careening off course as if they had actually been hit in real life. The foundations of Battle Mode are built around the fact that each different car, or character as the team kept referring to the vehicles during our talk, has their own unique ability or weapon that is capable of changing over time. Players will have the option to battle against the computer A.I., or go toe-to-toe with their friends, with each human taking control of a single car.

The robotics in the cars are so smart, though, that even when they get blown off the immediate track, the enemy A.I. will be able to correct their course and get back into the battle all on their own. With so much action going on right there on your living room floor, it’s clear that the folks at Anki want people to spend the most time looking down at the physical game, rather than the touch device. Your iPhone or iPad will primarily be used for changing speed or shifting lanes, in addition to a garage modification screen that players can use to tweak their car’s abilities in between each race. Additional game modes are already in the works to be introduced in future free content updates to Anki Drive.

Anki Drive

The whole thing might seem a bit intimidating at first, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know a thing about robotics, but Palatucci and Tappeiner are confident that their ambitious new project will be easily accessible for gamers of all ages with no initial learning curve: in fact, they tell me that players will be able to get right to the racing within minutes of taking everything out of the box. The cars only need 7-8 minutes of charge time to hold a full charge, which will net you around 25 minutes of actual playtime. Better yet, you don’t even need to have a constant WiFi connection in order to play: the cars communicate with each other and with your iOS device completely over Bluetooth Low Energy (or BTLE).

But now here’s the really mind-blowing part, as if all of that other stuff wasn’t cool enough already: the actual cars themselves will get better over time as you play, much like your character in an RPG game levels-up and acquires new skills the further you progress in the adventure. This incredibly sophisticated use of an A.I. upgrade system is embedded within the cars themselves, so if you bring your car over to a friend’s house to play, then it will still retain all of your progress and skill enhancements right there on the respective machine. I think it almost goes without saying by now, but I’ve truly never seen anything like it in the world of mobile gaming today.

Anki Drive

So here’s what you’ll get in the Anki Drive base kit retail package when the innovative mobile game launches next Wednesday, October 23, 2013: a rollable racetrack; two cars (the yellow Kourai character and the silver Boson character); a charging pod and fast charger that’s capable of powering up 3 cars at once; and a tire cleaner accessory, which becomes important for cleaning off the dust on your car’s tires at times when the utmost precision could mean a win or loss. The base kit will sell for $199, and can be found in all Apple retail stores across the U.S. and Canada, as well as on the official Anki website and Apple.com. An additional two cars can be purchased in a separate package for $69, while the accompanying app will be available to download for free on the App Store.

But of course, Anki Drive is really only the beginning of Anki’s vision for bringing robotics into the consumer home. In balancing the intuitive versus long-term entertainment, Anki has crafted a very long road map to support the game in the months and even years down the line after its release, with both new digital and physical content. They see Anki Drive as the quintessential example of their self-proclaimed “Bottoms Up” approach to the world of robotics: in which they establish an affordable, buildable platform that holds a huge impact for the progression of robotics in gaming. And to that, all I have to say is that I’m more than excited to get my micro engines ready to ride next week.