The trend in recent years has been the atomization of previously familiar physical products; having turned them from atoms into software, some products are making the journey back into atoms.
For example large bulky record players and smaller CD players and books are now just an app in our smartphones. One would be forgiven for thinking that everything will eventually reside on a digital device. Well, I've got news for you, this flow is stemming and things that were once locked in the virtual world are now finding homes in the physical world, all thanks to your local cloud - your smart phone.
At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this year the show started with a demonstration by a startup, called Anki, demonstrating what they have developed for the platform. Anki, which has set itself the lofty task of making artificial intelligence accessible to everyone, demonstrated their new robotic game, which takes the typically virtual world of computer games and brings it to life as small robots controlled, entirely, from an app running on an iPhone.
In summary, there are 4 small, instrumented cars whose AI is provided by an app on the iPhone. These cars act like they would in a driving game, they race, they bump and they even fire Mario Cart style virtual weapons at each other. Most importantly, one or more can also be controlled by a person. This is literally the transformation of a computer game into physical form. The computer still runs the show but the sprites are now physical robots.
What Anki have done is the thing of any little boys and girls dreams, they have brought their toy cars to life which is, of course, what children used to do using their imaginations. Anki have also started a trend that I predict is only going to grow. Using low power Bluetooth they have moved most of the intelligence that would once have had to reside in software on a microcontroller in each car, into a smartphone.
The reason I find this so important is because it solves multiple, complicated market and engineering problems at the same time.
1. It dramatically reduces price. In the past each robot car would need its own microprocessor and control system, pushing the price well above the rest of the game market. By moving this processing requirement into the phone they have removed the need for this and only have to accommodate a low power radio module in the cars.
2. Because the robot cars are all managed from a central location they can be repurposed without time-consuming hardware or firmware changes within the cars, making it a fun and simple way to move from single-play to group-play. This is the Scalextric car toy that you've always wanted.
3. Finally, and this is the master stoke that exemplifies the mantra of "Stand on the shoulders of giants," they don't even need to sell you the microprocessor that is doing all the work! Most of Anki's target market already owns a smartphone and so all that is required is the downloading of a free app and the purchase of some relatively inexpensive robot cars. From an entrepreneurial point of view this has removed the number one barrier to purchase for a product like this, which is expensive, single-use, proprietary hardware.
Anki have essentially shown how the iPhone can be used as the local cloud service for devices that do a job only when required and then can be repurposed to something else on the fly.
With the growth of the hardware startup movement I would expect to see even more of this kind of thing. Low power communications and the powerful processing power of smartphones combine to release previously digital-only concepts into the real world.
Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.
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