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Anki Drive racing game outgrows iOS with Android support

The company behind intelligent miniature race cars is evolving beyond its Apple roots with an Android app, new vehicle line, and price drop.

Anki Drive's real-life racing game, once available only on iOS devices, is expanding to Android. James Martin/CNET

After its surprise debut onstage at Apple's annual World Wide Developers Conference in June, Anki spent all of 2013 driving inside the tracks of the iPhone's iOS mobile operating system.

On Thursday, the startup -- spawned from the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University -- is shifting gears. Anki has announced that it will be bringing support for its artificial intelligence-driven real-life racing game, called Anki Drive, to Google's Android OS, alongside a slew of new features and updates to its platform.

Anki's starter kit, which includes two race cars and the company's sensor-filled race mat, will now be sold for $150 in the US and Canada (£150 in the UK), down from $200. Cars and tracks will still sell for $70 and $100 respectively.

Android support is slated to arrive in October starting with Samsung devices, including the Galaxy S4/S5 and Note 3 smartphones, as well as the Galaxy 10.1 tablet, all running KitKat 4.3 or later. Other device makers are expected to sign on with Anki's platform in the coming months.

A new car, dubbed Spektrix, will also join Anki's lineup, which totals seven vehicles that each have unique abilities users can tap into when monitoring the cars movement around the track. The cars are not driven by the players as one might expect in a traditional, racing sim.

Anki's new car, Spektrix, allows users to scramble other cars' steering and weapons systems and was designed by Harald Belkar, who envisioned futuristic concepts for "Tron Legacy" and "Minority Report." Anki

Instead, AI algorithms help power the vehicles through thousands of scenarios, be they crashes or tail-spins or pile-ups, while players control speed, movement around the track and try to sabotage one another with special skills reminiscent of Nintendo's Mario Kart series. All the while, players also earn experience to upgrade their cars, just like in a video game.

The jump to Android marks a big move for Anki, which launched last year with a $50 million round of funding led by venture capitalist and board member Marc Andreessen.

Anki was exclusively sold through Apple's retail stores and online at Anki.com throughout 2013. Beginning in 2014, Anki expanded its availability to other retailers like Amazon and Best Buy, but kept itself within Apple's ecosystem. The iOS exclusivity was not part of its deal with Apple, but a reality of the wireless technology that the company's smartphone app employs behind the scenes to control the cars.

"Android has only just introduced Bluetooth 4.0 capability about a year ago," said Mark Palatucci, a co-founder and Anki's chief product officer, in an interview. The protocol is what enables smartphones to wirelessly communicate with other electronics and is a cornerstone of the modern mobile accessory market. However, only Apple has historically supported the functionality.

Anki's track is a flexible mat filled with sensors that help direct the vehicles automatically as they receive directions from your smartphone. Anki

With Android smartphone makers outfitting their latest handsets with the most up-to-date wireless protocol technology, Anki was able to shift priorities and include Android support for the fall. However, one minor setback at the moment is that Android drivers cannot duke it out with iOS drivers, but the company is working on solving the wireless hurdles keeping the two platforms from riding the same track.

"Because of the significant differences in the wireless platforms, it's something that's proved to be a unique challenge. The wireless tech for Android is different than iOS," Palatucci explained. That does not mean that the cars or tracks or platform-specific, which may have added confusion in the Anki buying process.

"The cars don't care, the tracks don't care. You can trade the vehicles," Palatucci added.

The company is also adding new team and balance modes are will arrive in an iOS app update out Thursday, and on Android with its arrival in October. That will take the typically free-for-all nature of Anki racing into new territory, allowing you to play and to level the playing field by removing experience upgrades that make more seasoned Anki users faster and fiercer.

These efforts, coupled with the jump to include Android, show that as Anki grows, it continues to tap into its robotics and AI roots to deliver an experience that feels as much like a virtual game as you can get without having to stare at a screen to see all the action.

Update at 2:30 p.m. PT: Clarified that players, and not solely artificial intelligence algorithms, do in fact control aspects of Anki cars' movements around the track, including speed and other factors.