Gadget Lust: Gentlemen, Start Your Smartphones!

Anki Driver Anki

On a cold snowy day, the future of toys skidded across the black ice of our walkway and onto my doorstep. Anki DRIVE, a sleek racing game powered by robotics and artificial intelligence, is part slot car, part video game and the culmination of the dreams of three Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. candidates who thought it was time to use their higher education to benefit mankind. Enough with robots that can do laser surgery or detonate land mines, how about one that can drive a really fast toy car?

The Anki DRIVE Starter Kit retails for $199.95 exclusively at the Apple store or Sure, it's expensive compared with your average slot car, but this is not your run-of-the-slot race car game. The kit comes with two cars, each with its own personality. Each comes fully charged—a nice touch, as no one wants to wait to play with their new toys. Two extra cars can be purchased for $69.95 each.

The cars have an air of the Batmobile about them—sleek and aggressive, with high wheel wells and spoilers on the back. Small wonder: The creators reached out to Harald Belker, the man responsible for designing the Batmobile in 1997's Batman & Robin (OK, that film almost killed the franchise, but the car was cool) along with vehicles for such sci-fi flicks as Minority Report and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

The NASCAR-like track is imprinted on a 8.5-foot-by-3.5-foot black vinyl mat that comes rolled up in a long spool. Unlike slot cars, where you design your own racetrack, the oval-shaped track is a fixed shape. Someone should tell the boy wonders that a Formula 1-style track with twists and turns would be welcome. All the kids who tested the Anki DRIVE at our house are used to choosing their own tracks thanks to a steady diet of video games, and one even looked for an alternate track on the other side of the mat.

I downloaded the Anki DRIVE app to my iPhone 5s, and my 8-year-old son downloaded it to a borrowed 5c. The app transformed my smart device into an even smarter game controller. The cars use infrared light and a camera on the undercarriage to see through the top layer of the mat to a binary code imprinted on the middle layer. The code sends a constant message to the cars to keep them on track. This left me to focus on lane changing, speed and destroying my opponents with liberal use of onboard weapons. With names like tractor beam, vulcan cannon and pulse carbine, the available arsenal sounds as if Q, Spock and the Terminator were consultants on the project.

Only two of us could play at a time, however, as we were limited by the number of modern iOS devices we own. Loners, rejoice, if that's what you do when alone: You don't need friends or family to play Anki DRIVE. Thanks to artificial intelligence, you can designate one of the cars to play against you. The AI car knows where it is and can drive as well as you, which is a lot more than I can say for most people I share the road with. And not surprisingly, the AI car whooped my not-so-artificially-intelligent tush many times before I was able to beat it, which made for the kind of addictive play I had hoped for.

That said, the cars pooped out after about 20 minutes of play, just as the instructions had warned they would. As a parent, I saw this as a plus—a teaching moment that would force my son (and me) to take a break. I plugged the cars in to charge and turned around to find my kid playing Minecraft. The good news is, the cars take only take eight minutes to charge.

Regular app updates bring the promise of upgrades and are meant to keep the experience dynamic, because the truth is, zooming around on a kidney-shaped track can get a little dull. Anki DRIVE seems aware of that, however and, along with upgrades, has also made its source code available to developers to allow them to build their own applications for the game and mastermind the robotic vehicles and technology. Anki plans to release further source code that will allow people to reinvent the game. This brings the toy into a whole new realm of gameplay for consumers, and puts Anki at the forefront of consumer-driven robotics and artificial intelligence games.

Every element of the Anki DRIVE has been thought through with scientific rigor. We felt that the wheel cleaner included with the kit (which looks rather like a black glue trap) was neat-freak overkill—until our cars started spinning out of control. Turns out, hairy tires make for hairy turns, as the cars can't get proper traction. We have a white cat that likes to shed on anything black, and within minutes of our unrolling the Anki mat, the cat had woken up from his nap, walked to the middle of the racetrack and exploded hair all over the thing like a dandelion in a wind tunnel. A smart developer would hack a Roomba with some Anki source code. That would make for the ultimate Anki driving machine. Sort of a Zamboni for cat hair.

Anki DRIVE is a gaming hybrid: part slot car, part remote-control car, part video game—a 3-D video game. These cars bring Tesla-worthy pleasure into your home without the battery fires. My son put his admiration for the Anki DRIVE even more simply: "It's like a video game came to life in our house." Lucky kid: So young, and he already gets to check something off his bucket list.