The sight of grown men racing miniature cars on stage is rare, and rarer still at an Apple keynote event. But such was the case this past June, when Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced Anki Drive, the product of two Carnegie-Mellon robotics PhDs who managed to turn their considerable engineering knowledge into the coolest toy car set ever.
Available as of October 23 at the Apple store, the Anki Drive kit consists of a hefty 8.5-by-3.5-foot roll-up vinyl racing track, plus two cars to race on it. Each is roughly the size of a Matchbox car, and there are four vehicles available at launch (extras can be purchased separately), for a total of four contestants at a time. Download the free app, plug the cars into their USB charging base, and they instantly pair with your iOS device over Bluetooth LE. Assign the cars as either player or AI control, place them on the track, and they're ready to go.
The tech is invisible: Cars scan special infrared codes on the track up to 500 times a second, telling them positioning, speed, and relation to the rest of the pack. You tilt the phone left or right to switch lanes and determine the angle at which you turn, slide your finger up and down to control your speed, and deploy weapons when necessary (think: tractor beams, shields, machine guns). LED lights atop the cars signal everything from machinegun fire to mechanical breakdown, reinforced by the sound effects playing on your iOS device.
Anki Drive takes more than mere inspiration from video game design. Once a race is over, each player is awarded medals and points depending on how they did. You can then choose to spend those points on upgrades like faster speeds or better weapons, and those upgrades are permanently applied to each physical car, regardless of where you take it or who controls it. Each has its own unique characteristics and features, depending the upgrade path the player takes (upgrades persist even if you set that car under AI control). The idea is to give players ownership over their car, and it's an idea that works surprisingly well, placing Anki Drive somewhere between toy and game.
Simultaneously tilting your iOS device while tapping virtual buttons on it and staring at a physical track can be a bit much to process at first, but if you've played racing (video) games, it's nothing you can't handle. And it's certainly not cheap; extra cars beyond the included two are $69 apiece, and races are the most fun with at least three. The mat takes up a lot of floor space, and there's a 100% chance your dog will want to trample it and eat the buzzy vehicles.
Enemy artificial intelligence (AI) is every bit as challenging as one would expect from a team of robotics and AI engineers. On its toughest-difficulty setting, we couldn't win a race; starting on easy, however, there's a satisfying difficulty curve built into the software. It's almost impossible not to be engaged by Anki Drive. Nudging, passing, and blocking opponents provides enough mechanics for competition, and the physical nature of the setup brings things to life in a way that even ‘Gran Turismo' cannot.
Anki Drive is compatible with any iOS device equipped with Bluetooth LE (iPhone 4s and above, iPod touch 5th generation and above, iPad 3rd gen and above, iPad mini). [$199, additional cars $69; anki.com]