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Hands-On With Anki's New 'Modular' Robot-Car Tracks

"Even though it's a physical thing, we think of it as a video game."

Eric Johnson

On the wall of a conference room in its San Francisco headquarters, the toy-robotics company Anki proudly displays the roll-up mat it used in its first-ever public demo — at Apple’s developer conference in 2013. By the end of this year, the company plans to make that mat all but obsolete.

Anki makes tiny cars with artificial intelligence, which lets them race and battle human players, and each other, so long as they’re on top of a special, sensor-laden material. Now, it has figured out how to make and market a “modular” version of that material — in other words, how to break it up into mix-and-matchable pieces rather than selling pre-made tracks.

The end result is sort of like Hot Wheels, those toy cars that sped down bright-orange snap-together tracks … except a lot more high-tech (and expensive).

Anki plans to start selling its modular track pieces, called Anki Superdrive Overdrive, in September. Retailers and press will get to try them at next week’s Toy Fair in New York City, but the company recently shared what it has been working on with Re/code.

Anki co-founder Hanns Tappeiner
Anki co-founder Hanns Tappeiner

Unlike the roll-up mats Anki has sold to date, the pieces are individually smaller and more flexible. This, co-founder and president Hanns Tappeiner said, is because Anki hopes buyers will weave the magnetically-interlocking track pieces onto and around everyday objects in their homes.

When the robot cars encounter a track they have never driven before, Tappeiner said, they will, at first, drive cautiously. But then, after confirming that they are driving on a complete road, they will “map” — learn — that, for example, one part of the track is a long straightaway they can speed up on.

In addition to the $150 starter kit, which comes with 10 track pieces and two cars, Anki will sell add-on track pieces, which will cost between $10 and $30, and additional cars for $50 each. Some track sections, such as a four-way intersection and a jump ramp, will be sold separately only.

Tappeiner and I combined the pieces from two of the starter kits to make one criss-crossing mega-track stretching across a conference table. As advertised, we were able to use the stuff already on the desk — soda cans, water bottles, computer cables — to buttress the rising and falling pieces of the track.

The hope is that kids will get more playtime out of Anki with the recombinable track pieces. The “commander” characters introduced last year will each prefer certain types of tracks over others, and racing on any sort of track will let players advance in a companion game on their phones.

“Even though it’s a physical thing, we think of it as a video game,” Tappeiner said. “If this were a video game, every time you advanced a level you’d be in a different world.”

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