April 16, 2014      

Anki Drive owners have a slew of new reasons to get excited about the racing game with AI-enabled robotic toy cars that are controlled by iOS devices.

The San Francisco-based startup and RBR50 company introduced two new tracks, two new cars, and a “race” mode to complement the standard “battle” mode. The original Anki system had just one race track and four cars. The new race mode will be available today as a free update to owners of the original Anki system.

The new Crossroads and Bottleneck racetracks will be available on May 6, 2014 – the same day Anki goes on sale at Best Buy – for $100 each. Crossroads, which is the same size as the original track, looks like a figure 8 and is Anki’s first track with an intersection. Racers will have to learn how to cross the intersection without hitting other cars.

Anki says Crossroads “blends hard corners with a challenging new obstacle. An intersection puts your driving skills to the test, requiring perfect timing and the optimum strategy to survive. Or blast your way to victory from across the track with a well-aimed shot at your opponent.”

Bottleneck features a narrow section near the finish line that only fits one car at a time, which will surely lead to some excitement down the stretch of races. Anki says Bottleneck “introduces a new set of challenges. The challenging bottleneck shape requires the perfect line to edge past your opponents. Timing is everything. Drop the throttle to thread the needle, or drop a Timed Charge to strike anyone behind you.”

The new tracks, like the original, feature special ink and optics that allow the cars to know where they are at all times.

The two new cars, Corax and Hadion, are currently available for $70 each. Corax, Anki’s first car capable of using two weapons at once, is built for battle, while Hadion, Anki’s first car to use the new turbo boost tool, is clearly built for speed.

The primary objective of “race” mode is to finish first in a 15-, 30-, or 45-lap race – users can set the desired amount of laps. Users can still try to sabotage the competition by using weapons, meaning they need to decide if it’s best to race as fast as possible or try to slow their opponents with weapons.

There’s also now an in-app scoreboard so racers can see who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Anki was introduced in June 2013 at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. The company, which has raised $50 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, and Two Sigma, is competing for its share of the $1.51 billion toy vehicles market.

Robotics Challenges Involved

TechCrunch spoke with Anki co-founder and president Hanns Tappeiner about the robotics challenges involved in the updates. Here’s what he had to say:

One of the challenges that Anki has been working on overcoming is how to determine and track the position of their robotic cars. To solve that, they created a complex pattern that’s embedded in the material of the tracks themselves. Each car is equipped with a camera and an infrared light that exposes the pattern to the cars, allowing them to calculate speed, trajectory and position at around 500 times per second.

“If a robot knows where he is…” says Tappeiner about the concepts behind the positioning technology, “he will be able to do smart things in that environment.”

The fact that Corax has been deemed a ‘higher-level’ car — which must be beaten in battle to be unlocked, rather than just purchased — is a very ‘video-game’ concept. Bringing that concept to physical objects is just part of how Anki is creating this sort of translation language for robotics that allows virtual world rules to govern the way machines interact with the ‘real world’.

There’s an element of industrial design at work here as well. Corax is actually shaped in a way that gives it a nearly perfect center of balance, something anyone who loves cars will tell you is the first step to producing a better handling racing car. The new cars were designed by Hollywood artist Harald Belker, who has worked on a variety of projects like TRON: Legacy, Minority Report and the new Total Recall.

While the concepts that are being applied here are very much in the ‘video game’ realm, the robotics challenges being tackled are incredibly applicable to the industry at large. Yes, Anki’s positioning calculations are being done to make the new race mode fun — but they’re also just as applicable to routing machines through a factory or cars through a pre-determined environment. The idea of locking down the AI of a real-world object until pre-determined conditions are met has applications in security and home automation, among other areas.