With strong backing from Apple, including an on-stage demonstration at the 2013 WWDC keynote address, Anki has launched its Anki Drive Starter Kit ($200). Described as “the first video game in the real world,” Anki Drive is a system of motorized toy cars that leverage a Bluetooth 4.0-equipped iOS device to serve as the AI brain. Think of them as slot cars, reimagined with today’s technology. Included with the kit is a huge 8.5″ by 3.5″ vinyl track, two cars — extras are available at a somewhat shocking $70 each — plus charging cases for the cars, a three-headed micro-USB cable, wall adapter, and a tire cleaning pad. It all comes packaged in a gigantic box that’s designed to hold the whole set when it’s not in use.
Before you can start driving, you have to unroll the mat and charge the cars. It takes about eight minutes to fully charge the vehicles inside their cases, which can be powered simultaneously thanks to the multi-headed USB cable, and they can then go for 20 minutes before having to be juiced up again. It’s somewhat surprising that the cable only has three heads, rather than four, the maximum number of cars that can be used at a time. While they’re plastic and clearly toys, it’s evident that quite a bit of design work went into the cars.
Once everything is set up, you launch the app to get started. The first time you do so, it’ll walk you through a tutorial, which starts with having you place the cars on the mat, and giving them a push. You’ll see the cars instantly begin driving themselves around the track, staying in invisible lanes and following the turns properly. Seeing robotic cars driving themselves is really pretty cool. At that point, you get to take over control—partially. Instead of full steering, players are able to regulate speed and lane position, as well as using weapons against their opponents. Sliding up or down on a virtual control will adjust how fast you go, while tilting left will move you into the inside lane, and right, the outside.
Currently, Anki Drive offers only one real game play mode, which can be played against the computer or friends. In this battle mode, you must disable your opponents a set number of times — 5, 10, or 15, depending on which you choose. There’s also a practice mode, in which the AI-controlled cars don’t have weapons or items, and a race game is listed as “coming soon.”
The battle mode is a lot like a video game. You must use your virtual weapons and tools to do damage to the other cars on the track, before they can do the same to you. Each vehicle starts with a tractor beam and a blaster; the former is used to slow down opponents, the latter to deal them damage. To attack another car, it must be within the line of sight of your vehicle, and there’s certainly an element of strategy. As you play, you earn points, which can then be used to permanently upgrade the vehicle with new items and more powerful weapons.
In our testing, we were impressed by how smoothly the Anki cars drove over the the mat, as long as their tires were clean. The cleaning pad that’s included is sticky, and collects dust, pet hair, and other particulates that may build up on the cars’ wheels. Occasionally, one of the vehicles may spin off course, or off the mat entirely. Anki Drive will try to correct for this, and when it can’t will have you place the car back on the track.
We found the technology behind Anki Drive to be cool, and there’s definitely some initial “wow” factor. Unfortunately, the set quickly grew less impressive, and we were frustrated by the extremely limited play options and overall lack of variety. There’s only so many times the same game can be played before it gets boring, particularly when what you’re controlling is as limited as this. While the upgrades are a neat touch, they don’t ultimately change what you’re doing. For $200, a toy needs enough staying power to avoid being buried in the back of a closet after a few hours of play. Anki Drive is the first display of interesting technology from a company that likely has more up its sleeves. As a consumer product, though, its shine quickly wears off, and because it costs so much, we can’t recommend it; it earns a flat C rating. It will appeal to automative enthusiasts who love technology and have extra cash to throw around, but Anki Drive Starter Kit isn’t a wise purchase for most people. Hopefully Anki will make some major changes to both the pricing and the gameplay experience for a future follow-up.
Company and Price
Company: Anki, Inc.
Model: Anki Drive Starter Kit
Compatible: iPad (3rd/4th-Gen), iPad Air, iPad mini, iPhone 4S/5/5c/5s, iPod touch 5G