Startup Anki Wants To Make Video Games Real Using Robots

Consumer robotics startup Aki has some pretty big plans for the games industry. Founded by Mark Palatucci, Boris Sofman, and Hanns Tappeiner, the company is looking to create a new wave in consumer robotics. In short, they're looking to create the future of toys and gaming.

"We've been working to take artificial intelligence out of research labs and build it into consumer products that people can use in their everyday lives," explained Palatucci, Anki's Chief Product Officer.

"One of the first things we realized," Palatucci continued, "was that video games have taken advantage of every advance in technology over the last three decades, whether it be high-speed graphics, Internet connections, or most recently social and mobile gaming. If you compare that to physical toys or physical games, they really haven't been touched by technology in the same way. So a lot of what people are playing with today is the same thing that people were playing with in the 1960s and 1970s."

This state of affairs, decided Anki's founders, needed to change. To them, this new genre of gaming held the potential for an immense - and entirely untapped- market. This is tied both to the lack of any advancements in the toy industry as it is a lack of emotional connection in gaming. 

"People literally fall in love with their teddy bears," explained Palatucci. "The character within the toy creates a really strong bond between the person and the object. Video games don't necessarily have that to the same extent." 

What video games do have, however, is the ability to adapt. They can advance, said Palatucci, both to keep with improvements in technology and to keep themselves challenging and entertaining as a player progresses. This allows games to maintain their entertainment value long after a toy may have gotten old or boring. 

"The content is significantly more engaging than what people do in the physical world. So we really saw an opportunity to create a new type of entertainment experience, one that combines the magic of video games and all the things that you can do in the virtual world with the emotional connection and the physicality and tangibility that you get from the physical world." 

Anki Drive -the organization's first product - combines real toy cars and a vinyl track with a digital gaming experience. The vehicles are controlled via iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, and can also be set to AI controls; players can either race against the computer or against their friends. Two-on-two and three-on-three matches can also be played. 

"We really believe that this is a new type of entertainment," Palucci added. "We believe that it's a really great first step." 

When developing the cars, the team was careful not to include too many moving parts. They needed to be designed with durability in mind, and Palatucci noted that the team put a great deal of work into the selection of its materials. Considerable effort was also put into the track design, which Palatucci explained is essential to the vehicle's AI. Basically, each car is equipped with a camera sensor on the bottom that effectively allows it to "read" the road; this allows the AI to know where it's driving when racing against a human opponent. The AI is also designed to improve with time - to evolve with the player, essentially.

Lastly, each car is equipped with bit of on-board memory, which allows the vehicles to store data (such as upgrades, for example). Applying said upgrades to a car is a one-time thing: once it's been written into the memory of a vehicle, it's there forever. At some time in the future, there's also been talk of supporting hacks and mods. 

Anki Drive was released on Wednesday, October 23, as a $199 starter kit which includes two cars and a racing mat. Those of you who are interested might need to wait a little while, since the set is currently on backorder. The startup itself has been a roaring success as well, and has already attained nearly $50 million in funding from a number of high-profile investors.