Talk about a high-visibility boost. Apple chief Tim Cook invited the CEO of Anki on stage at Apple's developer conference in June to demonstrate an early version of Anki's artificial intelligence -powered racing game. The San Francisco start-up with a Carnegie-Mellon pedigree had been in stealth mode, working on applying robotics and AI to reinvent the way people play.
Judging by the delighted reaction of everyone I got to help me test-drive Anki's first product, Anki Drive -- my 6-year-old and 9-year-old kids, a college student, a few older adults -- Anki has a swell chance to cross the finish line. Only it costs too much, and Anki Drive must travel further to meet its full potential.
Apple's endorsement hasn't stopped. Anki Drive goes on sale Oct. 23, exclusively, for now, in nationwide Apple retail stores and at Apple.com.
The game consists of a 102-inch by 42-inch by .02-inch vinyl racing track that you can roll up to take anywhere, plus the speedy cars that race on that track. There are four vehicles at launch, each about the size of a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car. Anki's cars were designed by Harald Belker, who was behind one of the '90s Batmobiles and autos in Minority Report, Tron Legacy and 2012's Total Recall.
Anki's vehicles are smart. The models have unique character traits that can evolve, kind of like video game characters coming to life in the physical world. You control cars via a free downloadable app that's compatible with the iPhone (model 4s or later), iPad (third generation or later), or iPod Touch (third generation or later) -- thus the Apple connection. Versions for Android are far down the road.
Anki supplied an iPhone and iPod Touch for testing purposes, since the app was not available in the App Store in the days leading up to launch.
Cars maintain their lanes as they speed around the track, without routinely spinning off as they did on the old Aurora Road Race set that I loved as a kid. You use your iOS device to steer -- tilting a handset slightly to the left moves the car to the inside lane of the track; tilting in the opposite direction moves it outside. Anki explains that while the track appears to be black, the cars read special infrared codes that not only let them know where they are, but where the other cars are, as well. Cars can scan the track up to 500 times a second to determine positioning, speed and trajectory. (continued...)
© 2013 USA TODAY under contract with MarketWatch. All rights reserved.