Oct. 25, 2013 at 4:57 PM ET
Imagine a set of Hot Wheels cars, only they're racing against each other on their own — careening around a race track, blocking and side-swiping one another. Oh, and they also have rockets and hood-mounted lasers so they can shoot at one another.
No, it's not a video game. This is Anki Drive, the new toy/augmented-reality hybrid from robotics startup Anki, which officially launched this week. The $199 kit, first introduced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, combines two miniature toy cars and a 3.5-ft. by 8.5-ft. racing mat with an iOS app, so players can duel using both remote control and artificial intelligence.
Anki Drive may seem reminiscent of new games that combine physical toys with virtual gameplay such as Activision's Skylanders franchise and Disney Interactive's "Disney Infinity," but it's not the same thing. "We're doing the inverse of what Skylanders is doing," Hanns Tappeiner, one of Anki's three co-founders, told NBC News. "Our game takes place in the real world, rather than on the screen."
While a game like Skylanders primarily uses the toys to feed the software on the screen, Anki wanted to create real toys that are guided by software.
Anki Drive uses the iOS app to control both the AI cars and the player-controlled vehicle. You can either race the cars across the vinyl track or battle against AI opponents in what's essentially a high-tech version of laser tag. While the starter kit comes with just two cars, the app supports up to four vehicles. At $70 for each additional car, however, you'll be glad to know that the battle mode doesn't involve any actual damage to the toys.
Mark Palatucci, another of Anki's co-founders, told NBC News that the game sprung from a realization by the three co-founders that physical toys hadn't really changed that much since the '80s or '90s. Watching the video game industry evolve in leaps and bounds over the same time period made them want to find a way to combine the two into a single entertainment product.
"We wanted to take what makes games so fun and engaging and put that into physical characters," Palatucci said. They settled on cars mainly because they loved the look and feel of high-end futuristic-looking cars, and ultimately enlisted Harald Belker, the automotive designer best known for his work on Tom Cruise's car in "Minority Report" and the Batmobile in "Batman and Robin," to help design the toys.
The four cars in the starting line-up do look flashy, and Palatucci noted that, like the action figures in "Skylanders," they all "level up" and store information about your gameplay. But at a $200 starting price tag, it's hard to figure out who the right buyers are for these toys, or worse, what might happen if one of the tiny robot cars got lost or stepped on.
Both Palatucci and Tappeiner insisted that, while the price might seem steep, the cars themselves are a hardware investment that will increase in value as they add more content. "We really see Anki drive as an ecosystem, Tappeiner said. "There are going to be a large number of really deep upgrades over time."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.