Slot cars are racing into the 21st century with Anki Overdrive

Rather than being operated by trigger-happy physical hand-held controllers hardwired to the circuit, à la ­Scalextric, Anki Overdrive’s robot cars are piloted via a free smartphone app.

Anki Overdrive is a modern take on Scalextric. Courtesy Anki
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If motoring purists have been up in arms at driverless technology supposedly taking the fun and skill out of getting behind the wheel, wait until they hear about the similar technological makeover afforded to the slot-car racing toys of their childhoods.

Anybody with a hint of nostalgia for those long-lost days of model cars clattering into their parents’ furniture and emitting worrying burning odours will be familiar with the iconic Scalextric. The new Anki Overdrive, by the American robotics and artificial intelligence start-up Anki, is to Scalextric what a McLaren P1 is to a 1980s Audi Quattro. That is to say all the same basic components are related – small-scale models zipping round a track that you piece together in a formation of your choice – but the whole thing has been brought hurtling into the 21st century.

Where Scalextric had relatively little real-world application in full-sized cars, though, Anki Overdrive pioneers some technology that you will increasingly see on the roads in coming years, in what has been dubbed “the first video game programmed for the physical world”.

Rather than being operated by trigger-happy physical hand-held controllers hardwired to the circuit, à la Scalextric, Anki Overdrive’s robot cars are piloted via a free smartphone app. You download that from the appropriate app store, then connect your phone to the cars via Bluetooth. After you select a race mode and number of players via the app, the manner in which the cars do a trial lap to “learn” the circuit using their AI is a real glimpse into the future of driverless cars that are being trialled around the world as we speak. In the words of Anki: “The modular track pieces use special ink and optics technologies to embed information that the high-tech vehicles scan 500 times per second to understand their position and steer precisely on any track configuration.”

The models – going by suitably aggressive monikers such as Skull, Nuke and Thermo – then stop on the start-finish line, ready for you to hit the start button on the app, at which point, driving control cedes to the humans in the room. Where things get really clever is when you choose to race against computer-controlled AI “commanders”, which virtually take control of spare cars.

Much like the average racing-based video game, the more you race, the more weapons and upgrades you unlock, with a variety of game modes, race variants and total laps. The racing sounds are chiefly made by your smartphone speakers – much like driving an electric car, the models, which stick to the track magnetically, are mostly eerily quiet.

Once you have the hang of the main controls, they can feel a little restrictive – you’re predominantly limited to changing lanes (by tilting your phone), accelerating/decelerating and activating weapons and power-ups. The raw pace isn’t quite as brutal as the original slot-car racers, either.

You might want to set up the track in reach of your phone charger, because the Bluetooth use can drain your battery. And perhaps inevitably, the weapons aren’t quite as spectacular as their menacing names – or indeed the depictions in Anki Overdrive’s adverts. Far from sonic booms and rocket launchers blasting everywhere, all that really happens if you “shoot” a rival racer is a light illuminates on top of their car and it temporarily grinds to a standstill. It’s motoring laser tag more than a full-blooded firefight.

Those bugbears aside, Anki Overdrive is remarkable for peering into the future of motoring; it’s an impressive piece of kit that injects you with a significant dose of childlike wonder, whether you’re the recommended minimum age of 8 or rather older.

• The Anki Overdrive starter kit, which features 10 pieces of track and two cars, costs from Dh899 and is available at Harvey Nichols and Virgin Megastores. For more information, visit