Some of you may be too young to remember slot cars, but I do. These tiny electric toys whipped around a small plastic course, powered by small groves in the track's surface. The player could only control the car's speed: too slow and you'd lose; too fast and the car would go flying off course.
Slot cars have stepped into the 21st century with the debut of Anki Drive. These tiny electric toys guide themselves around a small plastic course, but are no longer confined to a single grooved lane. They can weave and pass with computer-controlled precision while the player controls the action -- not with a wired trigger, but with an iPhone, an app, and Bluetooth connectivity.
As if freeing slot cars from their single-tracked slots and wires weren't enough, Anki has also given them guns and artificial intelligence and instructed them to take you out.
What's in the box? Crack open the massive, black and red box (nearly 4 feet long and weighing 9 pounds) to be greeted with the various parts of the Anki Drive starter kit. There are two included cars with charging stations, the Anki Drive track, a 2A USB wall charger, a USB charging cable that splits into three Micro-USB tips, and a tire cleaning pad.
There are also a few more parts of the system that you'll need to play, which are not included in the box. You'll need a compatible iOS device (nearly any that supports Bluetooth Low Energy will work) and the Anki Drive app, which is a free download from the iOS App Store.
The Anki Drive ships with two cars measuring 3.25 inches from nose to tail and 1.75 inches wide. The wheelbase is about 1.5 inches.
They feel like plastic toys, so don't expect anything too sophisticated here. The two vehicles are cast from identical, futuristic race car molds, only differentiated by their color palettes. The first car, Kourai, is molded of yellow plastic with splashes of black paint here and there to add visual interest. The other, Boson, is made of red plastic that is mostly covered with metallic silver paint and reminds me of the Mazda Furai everytime I glance at it.
At the top of each vehicle's canopy is a semi-transparent panel, behind which are LED indicators. When the LED is seen flashing red, green, and blue lights, it's indicating that the car's battery is charging, solid green indicates a full charge, and a pulsing green indicates that the car is ready to be controlled by a player. Pulsing red indicates AI control, so watch out.
There are also clear openings at the front and rear of the vehicle that will come into play with the laser tag-esque aspect of the game, which we'll get back to shortly.
Flip the cars over to reveal the most interesting details of their construction. To start, the front axle is fixed and its hard plastic front wheels don't steer like the front wheels of the car in your driveway. Instead, the Anki Drive cars steer by torque vectoring their rubber-tired the rear wheels, which appear to be driven by a pair of small electric motors. By spinning, for example, the right rear wheel slightly faster than the left, the cars can make left turns and vice versa.
Most of the vehicle's weight, in the form of the rechargeable battery and electronics, appears to be centered over the rear wheels, but a pair of small metal weights in the rear bumper give the Anki Drive cars a decidedly rear-biased weight distribution...sort of like a Porsche 911.
If the rubber rear wheels get dirty, players can clean them with the included tire cleaning pad: a tacky, semi-adhesive pad that pulls dirt and dust off of the rubber when rolled over it. You could accomplish a similar result with a strip of tape, but it's nice to see this attention to detail included in the box. The software is also smart enough to know if the tires have gotten dirty and can alert the player via the app to clean them.
Just ahead of the rear wheels are the copper contacts that receive power from the charging station, which is a black clamshell case for the vehicle with a semi-transparent cover and micro USB port out back. The cars can be stored in their charging stations to prevent damage when unused. Each car takes about 8 to 10 minutes to charge, according the the included literature, and will run for about 20 minutes before needing to juice up again. The included three-headed micro USB charging cable allows three cars to be recharged, simultaneously. However, because the system supports up to four cars per game, four micro USB tips on that cable would have been nice.
Finally, there's the track sensor, which is located between the front wheels on the cars' underbellies. Peering into this square opening, you can see what looks like an LED and a small camera lens. This is how the Anki Drive cars can tell where they are on the track and what to do next. But to figure out how they work, we'll have to take a closer look at the track itself.
The track -- basically an oval course with a slight infield bow on one side -- is printed on a large, vinyl sheet that is unrolled and laid flat on the floor. At 102 inches long by 42 inches wide, it takes up a lot of floor space. However, there's more to the track than just an average vinyl banner.
The Anki Drive system's included instructions make it clear that this track is to be treated with care, not stepped on, folded, or cleaned with chemicals. If you look carefully, it becomes clear why. In addition to being coated with a slightly tackier surface that better helps the cars' tires to grip, the track is also covered with special patterned codes visible via infrared. Look closely and you can just barely make the pattern out, like the grooves on a vinyl record. The cars read these codes as they move along to know where they are and where other cars are on the course and to help them maintain their "lane" without player intervention.