It's a Wednesday, 6.30am. The bedroom door slams open. My youngest son, three, shouts: "Daddy, can we play Anki Drive?" His brother, five, is right behind him. For a week now I have been hostage to a kind of science-fiction version of Scalextric.
Anki is a San Francisco robotics startup that was founded in 2010 but kept itself off the radar while it developed an AI gaming platform. Last year, it caused a minor furore at the Apple worldwide developers conference when Apple CEO Tim Cook invited the company's founders on stage to demonstrate their first consumer product: a car racing game that operates on Apple's operating system. The game was subsequently named one of Time magazine's inventions of the year.
A mashup of Hot Wheels, Mario Kart and Tron, Anki Drive is very simple to play. All the action takes place on an eight-foot vinyl racetrack. You race one of four small cars against either a friend or a robot car round the track for a set number of laps and the first past the chequered flag wins.
Your car (8cm, glossy, shades of Knight Rider) is controlled using an app downloaded onto an Apple mobile device. Your iPhone's motion detectors enable you to use it like a steering wheel: swerving in and out of lanes. Meanwhile, you can "disable" or slow down your opposition with virtual weapons mounted on your car triggered by buttons on the phone interface. The idea is that the basic tenets of a physical racing game (go faster, steer well) are enhanced by the sophistication of video games (each car has unique characteristics; you can accrue weapons and better skills) and artificial intelligence (the cars improve as they "learn" from each race; anki means "learn by heart" in Japanese).
Unlike Scalextric, where you were always retrieving cars that had flown off the slotted tracks, Anki cars (each has a 50mhz microprocessor, camera and infrared light) can "read" through the vinyl mat to work out their position so they always know where they are, where you are and as a result will never leave the track.
The controls are simple enough to manage, if not exactly master. This is a plus for the kids: the AI whizzes the cars safely around while they happily mash the keypad with their sticky hands. After bedtime, I get the chance to get to grips with the more complex stuff; learning how to decelerate, tuck myself behind a robot car and nail him with my rotor cannon.
Even for a big boy's toy, Anki Drive is expensive: pounds 179 for a two car plus track starter kit; extra cars are pounds 50. It's probably best suited to kids of about eight and up, and requires obsessive hours of play to get the best of the tech. But, no doubt, it's a leap forward. At the end of our first game, as all the cars unexpectedly scuttled into position of their own accord and a voice on my phone announced the winner, I felt the same weird chill I had when someone first showed me the swipe motion on a smartphone screen. Something from the future's here in my hand!
Jack and Alfie take the controls for a session of Anki Drive. Photograph by Antonio Olmos for the Observer