Meet the Robotics Company Apple Just Anointed

The coming revolution in the toy aisle
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During Apple's keynote at its Worldwide Developers Conference, it was all Apple all the time, except for one quick demo near the beginning of the event. The CEO of a relatively obscure company (as obscure as a company with $50 million in funding can be) came on stage with a plastic track and a bunch of little cars. They proceeded to race each other, controlled by AI running on an iPhone. There was a brief hiccup when one of the cars wouldn't run, but it got fixed and the demo finished well.

It was cool, but it was also a bit confounding. What was Apple trying to tell us about its future plans by showing us this particular company? Right after the keynote, one of the company's PR people emailed me to ask if I wanted to meet with Anki's CEO Boris Sofman, a Carnegie Mellon robotics guy (as are his two cofounders Hanns Tappeiner and Mark Palatucci). I accepted, mostly so I could find out what got Apple so excited about this little toy startup.

Of course, they'd hate to be called a toy startup. For Sofman, entertainment, toys, are merely the quickest way to get robotics into consumers' lives. He argues that their product is doing a lot of the same fundamental things that autonomous vehicles and other types of near-future consumer robots do. And that they're merely taking the bottom-up approach to building out these futuristic capabilities.

What follows is a lightly edited and condensed record of our conversation, which took place in a building on 4th and Market in San Francisco, on a floor high above the Ross department store at ground level.

We don't go into a lot of depth about the demo itself, but if you'd like to see it, go here and skipt to about 11 minutes into the presentation.

So, I saw the demo.

It was probably the longest 20 seconds of my life.

You guys were the only outside company at the keynote.

Only outside company this year. This might be the last time they try a wireless demo at WWDC.

I think it was Marco Arment who was tweeting that it was really interesting and kind of strange that they put you guys in there, given that it was such a packed 2 hours of Apple announcements. What do you think it was that got you onto the stage?

I think a big part of it was that there is a lot of overlap in what we're doing and Apple's motivations. We're a robotics and artificial intelligence company. Our focus is to bring these technologies to consumer products. For Anki Drive, mobile devices play a huge part of that. The phone becomes the brain for everything that's happening. We have a video game happening inside a phone that matches the physical world. For us, the phone is a huge advantage.

From Apple's standpoint, it wasn't just a neat product, but we're using their devices in a way that nobody ever has. What you saw was one phone connected to four simultaneous cars. When we do it on our end, you can have 6 cars and more devices. You'll have a phone that's juggling 5,6,7,8 Bluetooth low-energy connections and no one has ever done that before.

It caught their attention because it highlights what you can do with their product ecosystem in a way that no one's ever done before.

When the super car wouldn't get going during the demo, what was happening there?

What happened, when I was holding the car up, the light was green, that means it had disconnected already. That room had so much wireless interference and signal noise strength. We found out afterwards, it was four times anything they had tested or expected. That had never happened before. Once a Bluetooth low-energy connection is made, it's incredibly robust. It doesn't get dropped.

We really quickly restarted the app and reconnected and it held the second time through.

So when you held the car up, did you know that the connection had been been dropped already?

No, because I was holding it up facing away from me. I would have gasped and not been able to finish my monologue. When I pushed it and it didn't snap on, it was because the connection had been dropped. When I saw the green light, I knew. You can hear me say, "Restart" and then I'm like tapdancing for 10 seconds waiting for it to pick up again. A little drama is perfectly fine as long as it works out. It took me like half the rest of the show to stop shaking. I mentally snapped back into it sometime during the iOS stuff.

Talk to me about the funding.

We closed our Series-A back with Andreesen Horowitz last March. We were 4 people back then. We walked in and Marc Andreesen was like a little kid, flicking the cars on the floor. He fell in love with it. he actually joined our board back then, which was humbling. From then, it's been an insanely crazy year, it's like strapping into a rollercoaster. We're now 35 people.

How'd you guys really get on stage?

Marc was the one who introduced us to Apple early on because that was a retail channel that was a good fit for what we wanted to do. We were just super happy to get the amazing response all the way through the [Apple] organization up to the executive team. I think they saw the great synergy between what we're doing and what they're doing.

What do you need all those people for?

It was three of us for a long time. It wasn't glamorous. We were sitting around a kitchen and hacking on nights and weekends. In the first three years, we were able to get really advanced advanced prototypes. It was the furthest you could go without some serious investment. Once you want to take it from an advanced prototype to an advanced product, it takes a lot of people.

For us, this is the first step of bringing this kind of robotics into people's lives, in this case entertainment. When you look at what goes into Anki Drive, what goes into this is: industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, embedded systems, low-level firmware development, control algorithms, dealing with sensors, wireless communications, core robotics, artificial intelligence, mobile development, game development. Just getting the product together is a huge chain. Even with 30 other people, we're really thin. There's only one person in each of those categories. Recently, we brought on a manufacturing team, who is working on sourcing all these parts.

As an artificial intelligence guy, what attracted you to this project?

When we were in grad school, we all worked on really cool projects. I'll give you an example. My project was a huge autonomous vehicle, like wheels up to my shoulders. Completely off-road. We'd go to different parts of the country, plop it down in a forest and give it a destination 10 kilometers away. He [the vehicle] would be using aerial data, GPS sensors on-board, pathfinding algorithms. He'd have 8 quadcore CPUs in his little hull. He'd decide where to go, which bushes to trample, and how to get ditches and trees. He'd be moving pretty quickly. We had a chase Hummer and we couldn't keep up with him sometimes.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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