The New King of Toys

In re-imagining vintage slot car racing, Anki set the bar for 21st century play: make it a phone app, use plenty of AI, and don’t forget laser warfare.

If Elvis Presley’s still alive, he’ll love the Anki Overdrive.

The King may be baffled to hear the hottest high-tech toy of the holiday season was developed by a team of robotics and artificial-intelligence engineers to be a “game engine in the real world.” He may not know how to use smartphone apps to control its remote-control cars in a videogame battle. And he will surely be baffled by their fantastical array of simulated weapons, from “repulser fields” to “tachyon disruptors.”

Then again, Elvis would immediately recognize the Anki Overdrive as an updated version of the present his then-girlfriend Priscilla gave him in Graceland on Christmas morning, 1965: An electric slot-car racing set. A toy that sends multicolored cars — red, yellow, blue, green — speeding around a miniature track.

Tech columnists everywhere are raving about the Anki Overdrive’s innovative, futuristic gameplay. I will too. First, because this toy represents the unexpected convergence of about a dozen tech and entertainment trends in a tiny little package, I’d like to offer some context — beginning with why Priscilla’s gift to Elvis was more romantic than it sounds.

And They’re Off… The First 50-Year Lap.

The first-ever car-racing sets debuted in the 1910s, almost exactly a century ago, and just a few years after Ford launched the Model T — but they didn’t catch on for a while. The toy took about a half-century to hit its top speed. Right around that Christmas morning in 1965, thanks to baby-boomer hobbyists and a boom in affordable parts, electric slot-car racing became a craze of pet rock proportions. From 1963–1966, the hobby netted a half-billion annually in sales. In 1966 alone, shops sold over a million of just one model: the futuristic “Manta Ray.”

Slot-cars weren’t just toys kids played with at home. As many as 3,000 public slot-car tracks sprung up, like arcades, in the 1960’s. Hobbyists would bring their own cars, line them up in electrified slots on huge, room-sized tracks, and use a radically simple trigger to control the current absorbed by the cars’ tiny engines. Too fast? The car would fly off the track. Too slow? The car would lose the race. Organizers bragged that cars hit Formula-1 top speeds, albeit at 1/24 scale.

By giving Elvis that racing set, Priscilla may have actually been trying to get the King to spend more time in Graceland. Elvis and his Memphis Mafia pals (who’d given him a life-size statue of Jesus on Christmas that year) were racing cars with a religious fervor at the local “Robert E. Lee Raceway” slot-car track in Memphis. If so, her plan worked better than she could have anticipated: Just a couple weeks later, in mid-January, Elvis spent $4,990 ($36,883, adjusted for inflation) to upgrade to a custom-built, massive “Highspeed Raceway Road America” set. The track was so enormous, the King had to wall off his pool patio and devote an entire room at Graceland to racing tiny cars.

The hobby’s mix of train-model enthusiasm, garage-tinkering, and high-speed competition wasn’t quite a Hula-Hoop sensation, but it came close: Ed Sullivan hosted celebrity races on his show. Even Presley’s pop rivals The Beatles — Beep beep, beep beep, yeah— were addicted. Much of John Lennon’s attic was “devoted entirely to John’s model racing car track,” biographer Barry Miles writes. “A Scalextric electric model racing car set accompanied the Beatles on their 1964 British tour and was always set up backstage. John was so taken with the little model cars that he is reported to have bought twenty sets.”

For a car-crazed country, slot-car sets were a fast, brash, electric miniature that pulled stock-car racing out of your television and onto your carpet. But the fad quickly ran its course. About the same time as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were racing slot-cars on Batman in 1967, the craze overheated.

It’s no mystery why: The gameplay was so limited, it got boring fast, even for kids. Slot-cars promised the fantasy of high-speed racing, but, frankly, all you could do was squeeze a trigger. You couldn’t even switch lanes. It was like driving a car with only a gas pedal and no steering wheel or brakes.

The Second Fifty-Year Lap.

By 1968, the vast majority of arcade tracks had closed and the future was speeding past. That year, the upstart HotWheels line began selling relatively hip mini Camaros and VW bugs. In Japan, Speed Racer outfitted futuristic cars with 007-weapons and thrust them into Grand Prix warfare and immediately became North America’s first crossover anime hit. In Hollywood, the slot-car-obsessed Elvis spun out. His racetrack musical Speedway crashed — and then he watched Steve McQueen lap him in Bullitt, the unprecedented realistic action film that took high-speed car-chases off the racetracks and into the streets. Soon, slot-car racing was rusting in the pop-culture junkyard.

Over the last half-century, Americans haven’t become any less car-crazy, but new toys have left 1960s slot-cars and 1980s Tyco sets in the dust: Matchbox cars evolved into Transformers; HotWheels courses twisted into sci-fi roller-coasters. Remote-control cars got so fast that a miniature Traxxas sportscar can now go 0 to 100 mph in 5 seconds. That is, if you don’t prefer to fly a drone, steer a BB-8 Sphero, or pilot a virtual Millennium Falcon.

Meanwhile, driving video games have sped forward from the arcade fun of Pole Position to the hyperrealism of Need for Speed or Real Racing, the cartoonish fun of Mario Kart, the sci-fi of Halo, and the open-world mayhem of Grand Theft Auto. In film, Herbie and Cars cast automobiles as branded franchise characters, while other fantasies played out in the macho stunts of The Fast and the Furious and the chop-shop road wars of Mad Max. The auto industry, rebounding from its big-and-dumb SUV doldrums, suddenly became an exciting driver of innovation, from hybrids and Teslas to Google’s self-driving car project.

A hundred years after the birth of slot-car racing, nobody was expecting toy cars to suddenly catch fire in 2013. Then, at Apple’s WWDC conference, CEO Tim Cook introduced the Anki team and the original Anki Drive, which became one of the best-selling tech toys of last year’s holiday season — that is, before it sold out.

For years, toy companies have been trying to meet consumers halfway between the app store and the toy store. Mostly, we’ve gotten fun video games with more elaborate controllers, like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, or old junk grafted with dubious tech, like the unholy, unsanitary iPotty.

The Anki Drive delivered what other companies had failed to offer elegantly: a video game on your living room floor. Its cars could switch lanes, fire virtual weapons, and trigger defenses. The lasers and machine guns weren’t real — but the cars responded as if they were, spinning off course, or flashing red and rumbling to a halt when “hit.” Anki‘s plastic cars acted like pixelated cars. And they fought back.

The Next Lap: The Anki Overdrive

This fall’s release of the new Anki Overdrive set feels a bit like the moment when James Bond’s quartermaster Q rolls out a go-go-gadget Aston Martin DB5 and says, with smug understatement, “I’ve added one or two rather special accessories…” The upgraded set, with reconfigurable tracks, might not look so different from the previous Anki Drive, or, for that matter, the Christmas present Elvis unwrapped in 1965.

Inside the box, it’s still a set of little toy cars.

The innovation isn’t immediately obvious. Though the bluetooth relays that control the cars and the sophisticated infrared sensors that keep them on track are ingenious, the real action isn’t under the cars’ hoods, either: The genius is in the code. Like Tesla and Google’s self-driving car, Anki’s real leap forward is its software.

The app, installed on a smartphone or tablet, controls the cars and allows them to react to fluid, real-world variables with an eerie ease — and the gameplay suits the way you likely live your life, with your eyes toggling between your phone and what’s really in front of you. There’s a constant feedback loop between the cars and the app via bluetooth, but the gameplay happens in that app: The cars are, essentially, the app’s real-world, robotic avatars — puppets with bluetooth strings.

Each Anki car has its own strengths, weaknesses, weapons, defenses, and styling — from the muscle-car-inspired Skull to the futuristic GroundShock. Gamers, accustomed to modifying their virtual rides, can upgrade the cars with greater speed, agility, attack strength, or defense. The cars don’t change physically, of course, but the software governing their behavior does, unlocking new abilities and an ever-expanding armory of virtual weapons.

What separates Anki Overdrive from the slot-car sets those pop idols loved — as well as the whole last century of car toys altogether — is that Anki didn’t just invent a better race track or a better remote-control car. Anki invented smarter robot playmates.

When you race, the app is an R2-D2-style co-pilot, keeping your car on the track so you can focus on the fun stuff, like shooting frickin’ laser beams. When you compete against A.I. drivers, the app generates characters that initially seem stupid, as they spout a pun-pocked patois of videogame clichés. (The talking dog Roofus growls that he’s going to be “ruff”; the fat guy Anchor says he’s going to “drop the anchor.”) But their behavior is smart: The app determines how each car will drive, attack, or defend itself based on unique artificial-intelligence profiles. A beginner A.I. might stay in one lane; an advanced A.I. enemy might evade your shots, slow you down with a “tachyon disruptor tractor beam,” then blast you to bits. I came to think of these Anki characters as the A.I. great-grandchildren of Big Blue, Pac-Man’s Blinky and Pinky, and Punch-Out’s Von Kaiser, freed from the prison of the screen and issued tiny driver’s licenses.

This adaptability is one huge reason Anki might be more than a holiday-season gadget, like a wheeled-iPhone Romo, that will melt as soon as the weather warms: Whereas most toys get boring and slot-racing ossified into an insular hobby for devoted tinkerers, Anki’s app is more accessible, all virtual, and open to future software updates at any time. The cars and drivers can learn new tricks; the gameplay can change. In music terms that Presley and Lennon would understand, it’s not a hit single; it’s the album that launches a whole new movement.

With so many variables, there are frequent glitches: Cars occasionally get knocked off course and become as comically confused as DARPA’s drunk robots. Mostly, though, I watched the A.I. cars outmaneuver one another (and myself) at high speeds and began to think that the technology fit the classic definition of being so sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. Elvis, say, might think someone had cast a Fantasia-style spell to make inanimate objects dance.

For a generation that’s growing accustomed to hyper-realistic video games that resemble and behave like the real world, Anki is a physical game that looks and behaves like a digital fantasy. Like many great video games, Anki makes it easy to project yourself into a world where you can control and master something powerful and frightening — and, given the miniature scale, there is something undeniably, comically ludicrous about a game that pulls you so far into its world that you find yourself howling in pain when your tiny little car spins off its tiny toy track. The perspective gap, between the sophistication of the tech and the childishness of the game itself, made me think of Ant-Man’s best scene, in which the nemesis Yellow-Jacket, shrunk to insect-size, finds himself on a model-train track, staring down a fearsome Thomas the Tank Engine. In close-up, it’s horror. In wide-shot, it’s slap-stick. The combination is a blast.

Of course, if you have watched too many dystopian films about the rise of the machines, it can be eerie to see these robotic cars responding so fluidly to changing situations — particularly since they are programmed to shoot and kill you. If the dumb movie Pixels imagined giant video game characters attacking Earth, Anki Overdrive raises the prospect of a toy-store-spawned apocalypse that unspools less like Terminator and more like the cuddly cataclysm of “Trouble with Tribbles.”

Apocalypse or no, the Anki Overdrive feels like the moment when the real-world rubber finally hits the virtual video game road. A century after slot-car racing’s invention and a half-century after Elvis’s Christmas morning in 1965, it thrives at the intersection of all of these converging trends: the real-world fun of remote-control cars; the touchscreen ease of smartphone apps; the competitive artificial-intelligence of videogames; the spooky smarts of self-driving cars; the violent spectacle of Hollywood; the anthropomorphized personality of Pixar. It marks the end of a century of electric cars, but it’s much more than the season’s hottest toy. It’s a flag being waved at the start of the next century’s smart-tech-toy race.

The Next Race.

If the lesson of the 1960’s slot-car racing boom is that the toys couldn’t keep up with the times, will Anki Overdrive suffer the same fate?

Going forward, it’s easy to imagine how this particular Anki Overdrive set could be a Guitar Hero-style fad if the brand doesn’t continue to iterate. The biggest danger (and opportunity) ahead may be this: In a tech scene racing toward virtual reality and open-world flexibility, there’s literally nothing more restrictive than a closed-loop track, no matter how customizable that track may be. After a week with the Anki Overdrive, I was raving about it to friends, but I was also craving a version that could leave the track behind.

Could a future iteration of Anki merge augmented-reality with more advanced, robust remote control cars (and drones, copters, boats, robots…) while doing away with tracks altogether? What if your avatar could race all over your home — or neighborhood — battling artificially intelligent playmates in an environment that’s not limited by tracks, or anything at all?

Maybe, as Dr. Emmett Brown told Marty in Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Photo illustration by Backchannel.

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