Teardown and Review of Anki Drive's Robot Cars

Anki Drive Robot Cars

Back in January 2014 I purchased an Anki Drive "robot car" setup, along with an iPad to control it. I had high hopes. Anki had a great story: originated in CMU's robotics program; raised $50M in VC funding (now more than $105M); and launched at Apple's WWDC conference in 2013. It was touted as "bringing robots out of the lab and into homes, using real AI." I couldn't wait to get my hands on one -- to try it out and to tear it apart to figure out how it works. Read on for details, including an inside look at how the robot localization works.  But spoiler alert... I was disappointed.

This is Anki Drive, premiering on-stage at WWDC 2013 :

 

Anki Drive Teardown: Cars and Track

 

iFixIt did a beautiful teardown of the car (only), so I won't repeat that exercise. It's all pretty straight forward.  A 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0, a Nordic BLE chip for comms, a lithium battery, and a basic DC motor drive train.  The little optical assembly (bottom left picture) provides the biggest clue to how the system works: it contains a pair of infrared emitters and a lens assembly backed up to a little optical imaging sensor -- a lot like a higher-resolution optical mouse.

iFixit Teardown of an Anki Drive car iFixit Teardown of an Anki Drive car iFixit Teardown of an Anki Drive car

iFixit Teardown of an Anki Drive car iFixit Teardown of an Anki Drive car

 

There is surprisingly little online information about Anki's special track. I took a few closeups of the mat (below, left and center). But these don't really show how it works; the only photo that kinda-sorta showed how it works is shown below (right), via FastCompany.

Anki Drive Track Photo Anki Drive Track Photo Anki Drive Track Photo

 

Unacceptable. :)  It was obvious that the track had an IR-transparent coating, so I purchased a PublicLab Infragram webcam (approx $55 in their store) for my home lab. It's basically a stock webcam with a blue filter (Rosco #2007 or Schott BG3) that allows near infrared to be captured in the camera's red channel.

Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera

 

Looking at the track in infrared makes it pretty clear how the car works: It's glorified line following with patterns of dashes (varying width and darkness) alongside the line to help the car identify its lateral position on the track.  Not exactly the "cutting edge technology" I imagined from all the media hype.

Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera

Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera

Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera Anki Drive Track: What's Inside using Infrared Camera

 

 

A Candid Review of Anki

 

At the tail end of 2013, with a high-paying job on the horizon (I was slated to start at Google[x] in early January), I figured, "What the hell...." I went out and spent $600 at the Apple store to buy an Anki ($200) and an iPad ($400) to control it. At about the same time, I purchased the $55 IR camera; I'd wanted one of those for my lab anyway, but this was a good excuse to buy one. That brought the total up to ~$700 for this little experiment (accounting for taxes). As my wife reminds me: That's a pretty hefty price tag for what amounts to little more than a novelty.

The initial unboxing was pretty impressive. Anki spent a lot of time and energy to make sure the product and packaging looked good. No wonder Apple was keen to bring them onto iOS. But there was a hitch: The cheap version of the iPad didn't support BLE (bluetooth low energy, required by Anki). This wasn't really Anki's fault; I had even asked the "Genius" at the Apple Store if the iPad I purchased had BLE and if it was compatible with Anki... he said, "yes." Tool. A week later, I made another trip to the store, plunked down another $100 for a better iPad, and now all the hardware was in place.

I had promised a few friends (John O'Hollaren from Apple and Evan Ackerman from IEEE Spectrum) that I'd wait for them to play it for the first time. We all met up on Super Bowl Sunday in early February.  Our halftime activity: battling on Anki!

Anki Drive Track Photo

 

Even with just two cars, it was fun. We played against each other for the duration of the 20-minute halftime, and then for another 15-minutes or so into the 3rd quarter.  But by then, we were basically over it.  We went back to watching football and never returned to the Anki except to put it away.

I played Anki just two more times in the ensuing 10 months: Once with a bunch of robotics enthusiasts up at Google[x], and another time at a party with friends who had been wanting to try it out. The effect was exactly the same: People would play for 15-30 minutes and then get bored -- classic XMas toy syndrome. And another big drawback: Anki is big! It takes up an entire room (a precious commodity in SFBA). Your only viable option is to setup and teardown after each use -- and overcoming that sort of activation energy for 15 minutes of gameplay is just untenable.

So the long and skinny of it? Anki is basically a pair of glorified line following robots combined with basic video game AI on the phone; not the revolutionary advances I was expecting. It's got some "cool factor" in concept, and amazing execution (technical and marketing)! But it's difficult to overcome the activation energy to setup and teardown. And even once you do get everything setup, the toy loses it's appeal after less than an hour. 

I bears mentioning: Perhaps my view is a bit skewed; I may not be their target market. I'm not a young kid. And I literally bought an iPad to play with Anki, so the price was massively inflated. I hear that they recently upgraded their design to make it compatible with both Android (via WiFi) and iOS, and dropped the price to $150, which is much more palatable when you already own a controller. But frankly, I'd be happier with big 'ole RC car (like this Traxxas RC car), a 3D Robotics drone, or even a little micro quadrotor. I've gotten hundreds of hours of enjoyment out of these "robot toys."

It's a bit presumptuous on my part, but I don't believe that Anki sold anywhere near as many devices as they'd intended. If I were them, I would use whatever remains of that $105M in venture money to pivot (quick!). More tracks and cheaper cars won't dig them out of this hole.

 

After such a glowing review.... I have something to sell you: my Anki Drive is currently listed for sale on eBay.  ;-)

 

Comments

I think you are underestimating the challenges of launching a real commercial robotics project on a large scale. Something anki talked about in detail at RSS. 

Even tho the technology may seem like glorified line following to do that at a reasonable cost with the reliability of a consumer product is HARD. People in robotics repeatedly overlook that very large point. The average lab\field demo we celebrate on YouTube is about 1% of the work that goes into a product launch.

Let's give anki a hand for putting themselves out there and selling a real thing. 

—Anonymous

@Anonymous,

I explicitly applauded Anki (in this article!) for their technical execution and their marketing prowess. Indeed, the idea and lab prototypes are just the first 1% of a very long process. But Anki did two things that rub me the wrong way:

(1) They explicitly touted their "advanced technology" and "real AI" to the press and to consumers. Both statements were nebulous -- whether inside the lab or not.  True, they did make a system that works (which is a feat unto itself!), but their marketing doesn't match reality.

(2) Ultimately, they built a product that doesn't provide any utility -- it's not solving a "real" problem, and it doesn't make the world better. It was a sub-par toy and sub-par user experience.

I am exceedingly supportive of the robotics cause (and it's difficulty!); I've been talking about it here on Hizook for almost a decade. But holding up sub-par products as bastions of the robotics movement is misguided.

Also, if my predictions are correct, Anki will crash and burn in spectacular fashion.  Even "legit" robotics companies (like Rethink) are finding it difficult to crack the robotics market. If we witness a few spectacular ($105M) flameouts, you can watch VC money for robotics shrivvel up and die -- to the detriment of the entire industry.

—Travis Deyle

I just recieved my anki as a gift for the  holidays and my experiences differ from yours - but perhaps so did my expectations? Here's where I with you.

A bit of background on myself. I'm 30, married with no kids. I'm a gamer (both board and video), racing enthusiast, and enjoy neet gadgets- so you could argue I'm on the edge of their target market!  As of now, I've gone through 4-5 sessions with ranging play times from 30 mins to 3 hrs.

My set up is fairly quick. The charge time on the cars has been anywhere between 6-10 mins, they say 8 I believe. Set up including charging cars, rolling out the mat, and bringing a few chairs.  When we play, we know we'll be playing on and off- so we set the Anki to an area thats out of the way but we've also simply rolled it up when not in use. Also, the amount of play time off a single charge is very good. I wont give exact numbers but typically i'll get through 4-6 games (games differ) before having to charge again. Charging isnt that bad either, as it gives you a moment to upgrade your cars and take a break.

I've played with all combinations of players and AI, but what impressed me was the 1-1 Human vs AI car...especialy in the later challenges. I was surprised by the AI's moves and found myself applauding the little robot car when I would lose- pleased to of been outsmarted by this little plastic toy. So, I can't say I agree with your issues with the AI. The tech in these cars might be simple, but it gets the job done and I run off the track far less with these then I did with my old slot car sets back in the day. So progress!

Lastly, and this was a big one for me. My wife (who is NOT a gamer, geek, nerd, you call it) very much likes the game and has been asking to play. She enjoys the familiarity of using her Iphone as the control. In fact, i've brought the game with me and just told anyone who wants to play to download the app. I set up the game...and they swap right from their fave social media apps into the game. My wife also likes that she has her own account, with her own stats and customizations. It gives her an attachment to the cars as I'm sure was intended.

I play alot of games/video games and goof with lots of gadgets. Again, our expectations and range of experience might be the only differance here in our views of anki. For a guy like me however, this is definitely something I can see myself taking out during small group gatherings to goof around on or make party wagers for beers.

Thank you for your write up none the less =) 

—Ricky

My wife bought the starter kit as my Christmas present 2014. My view is similar to Ricky's view.

A little background on me. I am over a decade older than Ricky, I am married, I have a son, and I went nuts when TCR came out. I am a gamer (video) and a racing enthusiast.

I probably am Anki's target market.

Your article was great, but I disagree with your conclusions. Anki Drive is a great advance in technology.

Anki Drive is wireless slot cars. It is little robots following lines, controlled by an app on your phone, which is a really cool AI app. As a kid, if I didn't have someone to hold a controller, I was racing solo around a course of my design. That was boring. Really boring.

With Anki, if no one is around, I race against the AI cars, which are very cool. The awesome is how the AI cars behave, not the fact that Anki is little robots following infrared lines (by the way, thanks for the infrared pics of the track. I think the concept is pretty smart).

I am now going to race my wife on the boring track and see if I can kick her butt.

And thanks for the writeup...especially the infrared pics.

—Anonymous

I am also in my 40s, an electronics and nuclear engineer and just got my Anki today. I am like Jan 8th anonymous in opinion. This is a stupendous leap in fun over slot cars and the solo play value here is immense. I have two friends chomping at the bit for a play session this weekend. I will be surprised if both don't go get their own cars. Both already downloaded the ap.

when I gave them my first impressions I, like you, noted the packaging is Apple'ish. Clearly a knod towards Apple to make a quality connection. The tutorial was easy and performance is good. I understand how they are working (your article and two others confirm) and I agree it is simple. The key is th delivery with the ap, options, AI drivers and pace of the game are all good. These things are just now available again on the market. Amazon still has listings for cars at near twice retail. That means strong demand.

i think if you had let the AI beat up on you a bit more and were closer to the center of their tgt market you would be all over Anki. 

—Mike

Anki team has think out of the box to create such brilliant game. Virtual + reality. Really brilliant on that part. Yes, I agree having a car racing game is an AI but isn't all racing car games an AI too?

To have the Anki car goes according to what the phone request to do, there has to be a map for the reality and the virtual, both gotta be the same scale and distance, that is what Anki did. In a virtual car games like Mario Kart it is just purely virtual games. In the virtual games, there must be an algorithm or AI to instruct all the other Cars to go left, right, shooting and car crashing when hit any obstacle.

For Anki, the phone or the tablet does all the processing where the cars should move of cars, the proximity of each cars where the car in front of u will slow u down. With the Anki cars continuoaly sending road map location back to phone/tablet for processing. The phone/tablet send instructions to the car to where to go, to turn left/right, faster and slower that mimic the virtual map location to the reality map.

What appears in the virtual game will be the same as the reality. In virtual game you shoot a car in front of you, smartphone/tablet will send instructions to Anki car for execution. To a layman, it seems like the car has a mind of its own and runs by itself, not the processing of the smartphone/tablet. In fact, the car mimic what happen in the virtual racing game on the smartphone/tablet.

Summary, about the game itself nothing fantastic as all Gameloft racing car games are far more complicated track far more AI. But what Anki team has done was, they think out of the box and created a virtual +reality game which is impressive which nobody has ever done before.

Whatever the reason, their cars are very expensive for very simple mechanicanism for USD$49. Whatever the individual car claimed to have special characteristic or super power are not the Anki car itself. It is the Apps, the software that does the magical manipulation. The toy car just execute the instructions.

—Anonymous

They are making new modular tracks and some new cars in September of this year! I can't wait!

—Anonymous

My issue was the lack of tracks. With the new modular design and AI upgrade to help the cars understand the infinite track layouts I believe the product will do much better. I will be buying Anki Overdrive and a few extra track pieces to quickly expand the track. I believe the new update in wich the integrated "pilots" is brilliant because it gives the game infinite number of behaviors according to the pilot and car he or she is driving and what upgrades the car has.  I do gree with you on how basic the first version was but honestly I think they are stepping it up with the modular track design. 

—Miguel

Let me know how the cars see each other. Bluetooth to the iPad, then the program comparing location?

—Anonymous

@anonymous,

Yes, I'm virtually certain that all fusion of car location data (and subsequent planning and high-level controls) occurs on the host device -- namely, on whichever phone or tablet that is selected as "hosting the game."  I rather doubt that the cars are sharing any information directly between one another without going through the host device.

—Travis Deyle

So a bit more than line following. I've seen my cars shoot each other across a track over intervening spaces.

—Anonymous

I brought Anki on christmas 2014

 Now I got all 3 tracks and all the cars, and I'm 57

best game ever

—vince

Bought the original Anki track- had hilarious fun with family in several sessions. I was king of the track and regularly beat up my wife and 10 yr old daughter- was not so great against AI but I could dominate on some settings. Then something happened. My wife and daughter learned how to play. In particular, my 10 yr old daughter wiped me off the track! As I desperately tried everything (including cheating) with no improvement I was handed several 10-0 losses from my daughter (now Anki Queen) and her enjoyment of the game sessions escalated.

This year's Christmas present will be the Anki track and I fully expect to be schooled in the new system by my now 11 yr old expert.

This toy acheived way beyond expectation de-mystifying AI, game playing, robotics, racing games by empowering a demographic that not so long ago was marginalized. 

 

 

 

—TomC56

I got the Anki Overdrive for christmas - I am 27 year old guy , married and live in our house without kids (this means I have a spare room or two for now anyway to build whatever track I decide to build)...

The Overdrive is the new version of the Anki drive which this review was initially based on. I think it is now worth commenting on this version as although the original is not obsolete most people will opt for the newer Overdrive version.

As mentioned above the packaging is superb... I also think the modular track system adds sooo much more gameplay that this is now a much more playable gadget over long term rather than a short one or two races before being boxed away .

I received the starter set , jump set , collision set and had much fun buildng a track and raceing on it..

The track slots together using magnets so it does not take long at all to build, dismantle or adjust your track.

The gameplay is awesome fun and the use of upgrades - abilities add so much to a racer game...It really is mario kart played out infront of you....

The one negative so far is that you do need a fairly new device to download and run the app. Luckily my phone is fine but now tryin to find a new phone for wife slightly earlier then her contract end date so we can play together!

I am excited to grow my track and may add scenery and also to unlock higher lvl ai as lvl 1 is tad easy (tutorial mode)

If you were not sure about spending your money on the original version I think now it is well worth grabbing the starter set and you will probably find yourself parting with more money to grow your own track and expansion cars and very happy to do so! 

 

 

 

 

 

—Anonymous

Well, lets me say, the TCR went today..11 days after Anki-overdrive arrived, we could fill the ground floor space with TCR and have lots fun BUT Anki mega bundle has won us over (after 30 years of TCR) I am so glad we waited for the 2nd generation of this kit Brilliant!

Adrian

—Adrian Venn

This means that I have much to learn. Very informative content.So here I go,learning the basics.Thank you.

JSC Result 2016 | PSC Result 2016

 

—Shakil Islam

My 7 year old loves the overdrive. Got it for him for xmas. it's pretty fun, even to his computer engineer old man. Modular track is an amazing execution. I grew up with hot wheels track, slot cars, etc. this track can be assembled by my 7 year old in a minute, and most of that is him debating which way to make it go. No fussy tabs, screwing with alignment. it's typical Apple. It just works. Play was dead simple to set up with iPad mini 4 and mini 2.

—Anonymous

How did they even manage to get the stuff working so perfectly.. its just amazing keep up people.

IPL 2017 Bangalore Team

http://www.IPL2017pointstable.net/IPL-2017-bangalore-team-details/

Delhi Daredevils coach

http://www.IPL2017pointstable.net/delhi-daredevils-team-2017-IPL/

2017 4:42 am

How did they even manage to get the stuff working so perfectly.. its just amazing keep up people.

<a href="http://www.vivoipl2017fixture.com">ipl 2017 Live streaming</a> <a href="http://www.vivoipl2017fixture.com/category/vivo-ipl-2017-points-table">ipl 2017 points table</a> <a href="http://www.vivoipl2017fixture.com/gujarat-lions-vivo-ipl-2017-team-squad-players-list-logo-jersey-ipl-10.html">Gujarat Lions team Players 2017</a>

Truth or Dare is one of the outstanding questions and answering game, and an excellent way to learn more about your friends. You can find a huge list of Truth or Dare Questions in this website. Truth or Dare game can be played at parties with friends, camps, overnight events, etc. It is also called as a classic game of embarrassment. Truth or Dare game requires two or more players and each player is given a choice between answering the question or performing any dare, for both it is needed to accomplish the task in a truthful manner.

Thanks for Sharing this Post Thailand Lottery Tips

—Emily

Thank you

 

<a href="https://www.snooker2017.com">Snooker WC 2017 Live Stream</a>

—Seneha

Wonderful Post Thanks

 

<a href="https://livecrickethub.com">IPL T20 Predictions</a>

—Alex

Thanks <a href="http://www.thelottoworld.net">Thai Lottery Tips Papers</a>

—Emily

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p>
  • HTML tags will be transformed to conform to HTML standards.

More information about formatting options