Robotics company Anki officially launched last year in a way that would make most startups envious — on stage with Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Worldwide Developers Conference.
Now Anki is preparing to bring more of those developers into the fold. The company has soft-launched a beta developer portal that will serve up an SDK, or Software Development Kit, to let outsiders program new actions and behaviors for its robots.
“Anki’s games and products are just the first expressions of our technology’s potential,” a blurb on the developer site reads. “As engineers and developers, we admire and respect the community of people who are excited to build with us.”
Anki got top billing at WWDC because its first product, a set of robotic toy racing cars called Anki Drive, taps into iOS 7′s Bluetooth Low Energy features. By pairing with a free app, the car sets ($200 for a starter kit) turn iDevices into steering wheels as artificial intelligence helps the cars race neck-and-neck around a track.
Like characters in a video game, those cars can change over time. Winning battles on the track lets them level up to unlock new weapons and abilities.
That track has no electronics in it, but rather is “read” by the cars via a camera embedded in their chassis. CEO Boris Sofman said that, on a hardware level, the camera is comparable to what one might find in an iPhone, but that races are powered through a combination of in-car processing and instructions provided by the Anki Drive game on a phone or tablet.
The robot cars, then, are effectively “puppets,” he said. New developers using the SDK will be able to make the cars behave differently.
“Anki Drive is just one expression” of the company’s goals, Anki lead game designer Sean Levatino said in an interview. “We have so many ideas, it’ll be great to let that go and get this in the hands of the community.”
Levatino likened the new initiative to the Xbox’s Kinect, which proved popular with hackers who found ways that Microsoft never intended to use the camera. A more recent example would be Orbotix’s phone-controlled Sphero robot balls, which already have a deep developer program.
Sofman said Anki Drive is a start toward the melding of physical toys, videogames and mobile devices. Activision and Disney Interactive have found success in adding physical toys as accessories to their games Skylanders and Disney Infinity, but Sofman said that making the toys into seemingly alive characters is a step beyond that.