Robotics start-up makes splash at Apple developer conference

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday, a robotics and artificial intelligence start-up made a surprise appearance during the opening keynote.

The San Francisco-based company, Anki, is backed by $50 million in venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures and Two Sigma. Like Bossa Nova Robotics, Seegrid and a host of hot robotics companies, it was launched out of the fertile ground of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Until yesterday, its founders were operating in stealth mode, but at WWDC they enjoyed one of the biggest stages possible for the launch of their first product, AnkiDrive.

AnkiDrive is something like a toy version of Google’s self-driving cars racing around a small track. It sounds simple, but what’s happening behind the scenes is actually incredibly complex. Taking the concept behind gadgets like Romo and Sphero to the next level, AnkiDrive uses iOS-based devices to evaluate thousands of potential actions per second as the cars move autonomously. CEO Boris Sofman says the cars run logic 500 times per second to sense the track and their position on it, adjusting their speed as needed and communicating back with an AI engine on the device. Everything is coordinated over Bluetooth via the AnkiDrive app.

“We are using iOS devices not just as remote controls but as the brains behind an immersive, real-world experience,” Sofman said during the presentation. “And that is what lets us bring these cars to life.”

It’s incredibly cool to watch — Anki compares it to a video game brought to life — but perhaps the most interesting thing about the company is that Anki hints toy cars are just the beginning.

“When we look at Anki Drive, we see the first steps of the future of robotics and artificial intelligence being realized,”  Sofman writes in a post on the company website. “We see an entertainment experience transformed today, and we see countless possibilities in the future.”

You can view the entire keynote here (skip to the 10:30 mark for the Anki presentation).

[ photo courtesy of Anki ]

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