New Smart Toy Brings Video Gameplay to Your Living Room Rug

Written on November 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm , by

My son loves video games. I don’t object to them—as long as he has balance in his life and keeps his grades up—because I know there are benefits (as well as hazards) to this highly engaging form of entertainment. In fact, for a smart boy with his temperament, video games offer something that is otherwise largely missing from his world: challenge and control.

Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift, told me (for another article) that the immense appeal video games have for some boys can be an indicator of the “will to power” personality. This term, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the need—in some people—to control their environment. It is a basic, immutable personality trait that trumps other basic impulses such as the will to please. Video games feed that need by offering control over a vast, complex world that requires lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decision making, extensive memory and ruthlessness. So I let him play, within limits. But I often wish there were a way to deliver that experience outside of a screen, perhaps in a format that would allow me to more easily play with him.

It turns out that there are some very smart geeks who wanted that too. And they had the know-how to build it. I sat down with the creators of Anki Drive in their San Francisco offices for a demo of the video-game-like driving game they created with an impressive amount of robotics and artificial intelligence technology. This game, which is delightfully reminiscent of the Hot Wheels cars my son loved when he was small, is like a video game that has been pulled out of the virtual world and set down on the living room rug.

It is actually set down on a mat that you unroll onto the rug. That mat—though light, flexible and unassuming—is an important part of the game because it carries, printed under the image of the racetrack, information the cars use to understand where they are in the real world. And the cars— though they are small, durable and look like toys—carry the artificial intelligence of an onscreen avatar. They learn as you play, can earn new weapons and skills, and are capable of playing on their own.

After we talked about the technical challenges of bringing state-of-the-art robotics to a $200 toy, the company founders rolled out a mat, set down some cars and handed me an iPhone (the controller is an iOS app so it can run on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone) and we played. I suspect they were being kind to me because my car did not die immediately—at least not until someone suggested I play against the machine. And then I got to see what lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decision making and ruthlessness really look like. My son would love this game. I would love to play it with him. Fortunately, there’s a holiday coming up that will give me an excuse to buy one for him.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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