Anki Drive Review:Taking Artificial Intelligence for a Test Drive

Anki Drive is the toy of the future. Unfortunately for the moment, it's still stuck in the present.
Anki Drive is the toy of the future. Unfortunately for the moment, it's still stuck in the present.

This holiday season, one of the coolest things you could get for the automobile or tech enthusiast in your life is Anki Drive. Like some popular video games now on the market such as "Disney Infinity" and "Skylanders," Anki promises to bring toys to life, but in a different way than either of those products. While "Skylanders" has players use action figures to drive events on-screen, Anki Drive does things the other way around: players use an iOS app to control the toy — a fancy-looking racecar — as it races or battles against computer or human-controlled opponents.

On face value, therefore, Anki Drive sounds like a video game that you play in real life. You don't have to be a kid to get excited by that, which probably helps explain why Anki shared the stage with Apple at this year's WWDC just so it could introduce its product and itself as a company.

But still, the tech industry has failed delivered on much less crazy promises than letting you play with AI controlled robot cars. So now that Anki Drive is available for the steep price of $200, one has to wonder: is it really worth it?

The short answer is: probably not. Anki Drive is thrilling as an invention; but after testing out the cars for the past few weeks, I can say that it's underwhelming as a consumer product. While the technology behind Anki Drive will likely improve as the company continues to refine and expand upon it, for now it seems like a high price to pay for the average person seeking a cool toy in time for the holidays.

If you are the kind of person who loves to be an early adopter, however, it doesn't get much better than this. So far, the game features four playable cars (though two of these need to be purchased separately for $69.99 a pop) that can be connected to an iPhone or iPad wirelessly and controlled through the Drive app to race and battle each other along a massive 8.5-foot by 3.5-foot rubbery mat that functions as the track for the game. "Control" is a strong word in this case, however, because really most of what you're doing is adjusting either the car's place in a lane or its speed relative to the other cars. This is more "Need for Speed" than "Grand Theft Auto" — the cars, while they may exist in the real world, still have to remain within the tight confines of Anki's racetrack to work with the game.

The cars were all designed by Harald Belker, who also worked on the automobiles for movies like "Batman and Robin" and "Minority Report."
The cars were all designed by Harald Belker, who also worked on the automobiles for movies like "Batman and Robin" and "Minority Report."

This can be a lot of fun in its own right, mind you. It's incredible to see an AI-controlled opponent car edge in front of you to slow you down, for instance, while another shoots at you from behind. The various weapons in each car's arsenal remain entirely on the digital side of things, so think of it like a high-tech version of laser tag played with cars instead of people. Playing with friends or family, meanwhile, only makes Anki Drive better — as long as everybody has the requisite iOS device.

Anki Drive doesn't run as smoothly as one would hope when it comes to playing it with others, however. The battery life for the cars is terrible, meaning they have to be recharged frequently even in the middle of games. The AI can also get easily confused if a car accidentally runs off the track or runs into a misplaced foot or curious pet, so games can be easily interrupted. And I can't help shake the feeling that these are incredibly expensive toys for ones that seem so easy to step on by accident. But with three or four cars in the mix in a tense game, it's hard not to crack a smile as you race around the track, ganging up on one person or trying to out-maneuver another.

Problem is, there's only so much to do with Anki Drive right now. The hefty mat that the game comes with is its only racetrack configuration currently available, and there's only one real racing mode on the app as well. So while it's incredibly fun to play in short doses, on several occasions I found myself with friends wondering what else we could do with the cars.

That's not a good feeling to have with any new game or toy, particularly one that would cost you more than, say, an Xbox 360. If you're really dying grab the steering wheel on the next generation of playthings, get Anki Drive. For everyone else, wait for the robot cars to shift into the next gear before picking them up.

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: