Video games are digital constructs. Post-WWII analog designs aside, the "video" part of games might have progressed from an output over monitors and TVs to phones and virtual reality, but being tethered to a screen has been a constant.
Anki CEO Boris Sofman wants to change that. Still a relative unknown, Anki aims to bring seemingly sentient physical creations to the consumer market, starting with Drive (and its upcoming successor, Overdrive), a line of AI-piloted toy cars.
The process is simple: charge up the car's battery, sync it with Drive's app, place it on the included track, and watch as it zips around the circuit entirely on its own. (You can race this AI opponent by using a smartphone or tablet to control another car, otherwise it wouldn't be much of a game.)
So how does it work? Basically each cars' AI works through something called positional localization, meaning no matter where they're placed on the track they are aware of their precise location. Drive and Overdrive tracks are specially printed with coding that only the cars can see, and reading that code lets them drive and steer precisely.
"You'd never be able to stay on the track yourself," Sofman told me (though personally I'd still like an optional practice mode that would let you try).
Overdrive evolves the design by using detachable Lego-like track pieces all bearing their own code identifiers that tell the cars both where they are and what kind of piece they're traveling on, a bit like tires identifying different types of terrain by driving over them.
"We have to have a super precise knowledge virtually of everything that's happening physically," Sofman said. "Because it doesn't matter how smart your AI algorithm is, if you're operating on a bad testament of what's happening in the real world, you're going to look stupid."
At a glance, the Drive vehicles don't look much different from the hunks of plastic kids have been playing with for years. That's exactly the point.
"There's a lot of other applications where there's amazing potential for robotics but it's a much higher bar in terms of investment and reliability and functionality," says Sofman, who earned his robotics PhD alongside Anki colleagues Hanns Tappeiner and Mark Palatucci at Carnegie Mellon University. "With entertainment, those financial barriers basically don't exist."
Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into R&D for self-driving vehicles, a huge process involving countless legal and safety issues, among other elements. Compared to companies like Google, Anki's investments are a little less pricey.
"We can have a pretty big impact for tens of millions of dollars rather than hundreds of millions of dollars," Sofman said. "Which is a pretty big difference."
Anki was formed in 2010, and the rise of app culture allowed the three co-founders to offload most of Drive's AI systems onto a separate program running on a mobile device, preventing them from having to use a small embedded computer to power a car's brain.
Maybe more to the point, the advent of the iPhone in 2007 caused the price of components needed to build the cars' key robotic systems to drop significantly as the key phone parts—microcontrollers, cameras, batteries—evolved and became more commonplace. Manufacturing costs for a project like Drive could now be kept far below the hundreds of thousands that robotic engineering projects often demand.
"That was one of the biggest enablers," Sofman said. "All of a sudden you can get a 50 megahertz computer that's incredibly capable—it's way more powerful than the desktop computers that we had several decades ago. But you could get that for about a dollar."
"There's a lot of technology that actually uses gaming as a stepping stone for development."
To consumers, that means an Overdrive starter set costs as little as $150, with additional cars running about $50. Not as cheap as your average toy car, but no more than a new videogame release.
While Sofman prefers not to think of Anki as strictly an entertainment company, right now it's toys and gaming that are the best way to ease the company into a broader, burgeoning field of commercial robotics. Gaming is also a good place for them to develop new tech.
"There's a lot of technology that actually uses gaming as a stepping stone for development and then going elsewhere," Sofman said. "In a lot of ways gaming was the driver behind CPU development, it was the driver behind graphics development, it was a driver behind a lot of interface systems. It's always been a good test bed."
Sofman said the line between games, robotics, and AI has the potential to blur even further in the future. Extrapolating decades beyond where evolving tech is today, we can expect a leap in machine interaction complexity, because programmers will be able to feed AI better knowledge of the world around it.
"I think that our ability to assess and understand the physical world will be far better than what it is today. Right now we're bottlenecked by sensors and computations and accuracy," he said. "[In the future we'll have] laser sensors to be able to really map an environment and be able to fully understand it—it's going to get much more mature."
Fifty years from now, it could lead an entirely new form of physical entertainment, where today's game design may be considered rudimentary or even no longer the point.
"Imagine bringing physical characters to life with a level of personality and emotion and behavioral intelligence that never existed outside of a screen," Sofman said. "Then you start getting into a situation where you can bring Pixar to life."
Correction September 10: This article originally misstated the price of the Drive starter kit and cars. It has been corrected with the up-to-date prices of the Overdrive line. We apologise for the error.