Anki – Robots, AI, and AR in Your Living Room

When we think about robots, we often think of humanoid helpers like in the Jetsons (it’s a cartoon that older people distinguished people would have watched growing up) or massive industrial automatons that build those Teslas you see whizzing around these days. Maybe instead, we are reminded of a looming job crisis, where machines threaten to steal our livelihoods. In any case, “serious” industries with “serious” challenges are generally at the forefront of discussions about robotics because the technology involved has been research-driven and resource-intensive. This seems not to be the major hurdle anymore, and a lighter and rather cool branch of robots are taking over our living rooms: toys. According to strategyr.com, the rising popularity of interactive toys and prominence of remote controlled toys are both key drivers of toy market growth in the coming years. Still, toys aren’t often thought of as lucrative investment opportunities.

When we look at the total amount of funding a company takes in, even though industries differ we can still get an idea of a startup’s potential based on how much money they take in and the types of firms that contribute that money. The company we’re going to discuss in this article seems like a simple toy company, but their funding and backers tell us they have something much bigger in mind.

We’re not a toy company but we make the world’s best toys

About Anki

Click for company websiteFounded in 2010, San Francisco startup Anki is the brainchild of three Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute graduates. The team has taken in $157.5 million in 4 rounds of funding so far from major investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures and JP Morgan Chase & Co. Anki’s team creates toy robots using technology that used to be confined to labs and research institutes, in a seemingly effortless and enjoyable way. The way toys should be made.

While tech journals love to throw around the term “artificial intelligence” just as much as they throw around the word “Trump” these days, Anki’s use of AI technology isn’t token or questionable. The Company  made the prestigious AI 100 list put out by CB Insights which list the 100 AI startups you need to be watching (out of a total domain that exceeds 1,500 companies).

Anki’s first product, Anki DRIVE, was unveiled during Tim Cook’s keynote at the 2013 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Anki DRIVE is a crossover between slot cars and Mario Kart, that integrates a mobile app with real life robot cars doing battle and racing each other on a configurable track. Consider the following numbers: the latest releases of Need for Speed, the racing franchise owned by Electronic Arts, sold between 1.25 and 9.5 million units, while sales of Nintendo’s latest Mario Kart are currently between 8.3 and 36.8 million units depending on the platform we’re looking at. Racing toy cars around a track is a major gaming market.

The latest version of this offering is called Anki OVERDRIVE and it augments your traditional video game experience with some real-life objects. Similarly to other virtual battle racing games, different cars have their own unique capabilities and weaponry you use to decimate opponents and win the race. Although weapons are not present physically, but in the mobile app, their effect is very real. You see competitors slowing down or stopping after a successful attack while you take the lead on the physical track. This is where the game crosses over to augmented reality as well.

The technology is based on infrared (IR) cameras that scan the unique IR markings on track pieces and maintain position on the road. Bluetooth connection gives real-time control to the player using a handheld device. The OVERDRIVE starter kit is sold for $149 on Amazon, which is in the same ballpark as a major studio PC game or a quality toy. Anki is putting effort into updates and developments, with new vehicles called Supertrucks and a variety of track expansions already available, once again increasing replay value. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive and sales also seem to support this, with Amazon selling at least $980k worth of Starter Kits in the 2015 holiday season alone.

Anki’s second offering was released late 2016 and goes by the name of Cozmo. Looking like a character from the movie WALL-E, it is a demonstration of what the engineering team can do with AI and personality. Cozmo is all about character, which is not surprising considering Anki worked with people from Pixar and Dreamworks in its development.

Resembling a plastic construction toy with super expressive eyes (thumbs up to the animators), Cozmo is growing and developing with time spent together. You can teach it to do different stuff using the mobile app that gives daily goals and skills, but Cozmo is also actively exploring its surroundings while left alone. It can use the integrated camera to recognize and greet family members and show how it’s looking at the world on your smartphone. You can play games using the three Power Cubes in the package, and Cozmo plays to win, gloating or throwing a tantrum depending on the outcome.

The technology powering this little critter is advanced for a toy with a price tag of $180. It’s equipped with a camera that has facial recognition and an AI powered by its own CPU used to analyze thousands of potential future states per second. Built from 300+ parts that move using four motors, the construction was tested to remain durable and long lasting. Here’s a look at all the components:

Most of the software and learning progress is stored in the cloud, so you don’t need to worry about backup. This also means Cozmo has to be connected all the time though. The package comes with a Developer’s Toolkit powered by Python, so you can tweak and add things if you’re into software development.

Reviewers tend to be charmed by Cozmo, but also point out that current capabilities are limited, and the novelty may wear off. Anki will probably keep on adding updates and capabilities though, as they did with Anki Drive, opening up new ways to work and play with this unique household robot. Who cares what the pundits say though. While the nerd in us wants to go buy these toys yesterday, the investor in us wants to know how much of this isht are they selling? The answer turns out to be a lot.

Anki’s two offerings OVERDRIVE and Cozmo were 2 of the top 4 best-selling premium toys ($75+) for this past holiday season according to The NPD Group. Here are some other interesting metrics about sales and usage (coming from all the toy robot “big data” being sent up to the cloud):

  • To date, Anki OVERDRIVE fans have driven 3.9 million miles, played 4 million hours, and built 130K different track configurations.
  • Cozmo has met over 350K faces since launch.
  • Cozmo has been sparked 1.7 million times to perform an ability and he has asked to play a game more than 1.9 million times.
  • Cozmo robots have explored a total of 3.4M sq. ft. of space, which equates to 5.8 times the area of the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Conclusion

Anki has successfully created and launched two awesome toys that combine robotics, augmented reality and AI. This is a feat in itself, but we’re looking forward to see what they build on these platforms next. The amount of funding and the names involved show us that a liquidity event is going to be expected, and for the sake of retail investors let’s hope that’s an IPO.

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