With Tim Cook's blessing and $50 million in funding from backers like Andreessen Horowitz, robotics outfit Anki already has buzz other startups could only dream of. Hands-on with its first product.
FORTUNE — When Tim Cook introduced Anki CEO Boris Sofman onstage at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference this June, more than a few audience members wondered who Sofman was and how an unknown startup — one that hadn’t launched — snagged a primo slot at one of the most anticipated tech events. “Apple was excited with the fact that we were using those devices in a new way, really,” Sofman puts simply.
The folks over at Cupertino aren’t alone. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called Anki the “best robotics startup” he’s ever seen. Former Disney president and company adviser Michael Ovitz was equally enthusiastic. “When they showed it to me, I could see what the future could be,” Ovitz told Fortune recently.
Now, Sofman, along with co-founders Hanns Tappeiner and Mark Palatucci, must prove their product is worth the buzz, let alone the $50 million in venture-backed funding it has received from Index Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Two Sigma Ventures. Anki’s first product, a racing game called Anki Drive, goes on sale in U.S. Apple AAPL stores, Apple.com, and Anki.com starting October 23. For $199, the standard base kit will come with a large race track, two toy-sized cars, and chargers. (Two more car types will be available for $69 each.) A companion mobile app will run on iOS devices, including the iPhone 4S and above.
Here’s how it works: The mobile app uses unique, highly sophisticated artificial intelligence developed by Anki to breathe virtual life into the toy cars, each of which contains an optical sensor to send and receive data. Designed by Harald Belker, whose creations have appeared in films such as Minority Report, these cars can automatically weave round corners and change competitive racing strategies on the fly — features Sofman first demoed at Apple’s conference earlier this year. Cars take 7-8 minutes to fully charge; a full charge offers 25 minutes of non-stop racing.
But with Anki Drive, the A.I. creates a very accessible experience, whether the player is five- or 35-years-old, a grizzled gamer or a clumsy novice. (Because of it, players will rarely ever veer off course, unless they’ve been taken out by a competing car.) Steering controls, by way of the Anki Drive app, are boiled down to accelerating and decelerating, and steering left and right. Players can also tap into their car’s special weapon: a tractor beam that slows down the car ahead, or a rail gun to deplete the opponent’s energy, among others. Each car also has defining characteristics — one may be more agile, another faster — which can be upgraded throughout the game with free virtual points players accrue with every race.
As a lifelong gamer raised on traditional racing titles like Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, even Pole Position, I’ve always thought of myself as a racing aficionado, albeit one who needed time to get the hang of gameplay. Anki Drive, performed as Sofman and Tappeiner promised in that learning how to get around the track took less than two minutes. Swerving left to right, reeling in the competition (in this case, Tappeiner), all seemed incredibly easy. But when Sofman dropped in an A.I.-controlled car programmed at an expert setting, and it repeatedly tailgated me and shot me down, I realized that Anki Drive’s easy access belies a potentially steep learning curve for players who care to master the game.
Once Anki Drive launches next week, Sofman says the startup’s 45 or so employees will get to work on expanding the game’s experience. “Our biggest advantage is that everything about the gameplay — the rules, the structure, and the characters — is all defined by software,” he says. “So we have such a great advantage to expand the depth and the diversity of things you can do in the game.” (That may translate into more special weapons, for instance.) Gamers can also eventually expect the option to purchase additional cars and race tracks.
The only potential threat to Anki’s success? That $199 price tag. It’s certainly cheaper than many other offerings in the robotics space, but if anything, it may take time before some mainstream consumers become comfortable with the idea of investing in a product from a new company, entertaining as it may be.