Examiner chats with Anki’s Joby Otero, who discusses the legacy and hopes for Anki’s new OverDrive race car set. A former Activision employee and a member of the Skylanders team, Otero is a master of the toys-to-life genre that is set on taking the OverDrive game to another level.
So much more than your old-school race car set, Anki OverDrive uses the iOS and Android to take the “toy” to the next level. With plenty of expansions available as well, the starter set is just the beginning of the fun.
Released on Sept. 20, Otero discusses the newest edition of the series and the plans the company has to change the “toy” industry entirely.
For more information on Anki OverDrive, Click Here.
Patrick Hickey Jr: How did you decide to create this product? Where did it come from, what was it inspired by?
Joby Otero: Well, Anki as you might know was started by three machine learning and AI Ph.D’s from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, and we’ve always wanted to bring high-end robotics out of the lab and to the mass market, and particularly to entertainment, and even more particularly to games and toys, so they already had this going, and as you might know, we launched “Anki Drive” back in the end of 2013, and from the very beginning there was already a magical technology experience there.
And at the time that it was coming out, I had just retired from Activision and saw the enormous potential that these guys were doing but saw that it could have so much more impact if it had some character and story and even richer gameplay, so I joined up with them in the middle of last year to kickstart this process of turning it into a fluid game with a fictional storyline and characters that would give it more longevity over a period of time, take something that’s already had the magical technology blended with the approach of personality, character, or another way of putting it is take something that’s already there and bring it to life more.
So, that was kind of the goal over the last 12 months, well, one of two main goals, which is to bring all this heart into it, but then also to make sure that this idea of modular tracks, which the guy actually wanted to do since before launching the first “Drive” experience, but the technology just wasn’t quite there yet. It needed more adjustation time, so the software to support that, and there’s an enormous amount of upgrading all of our routines that were needed to make sure modular tracks really worked gracefully.
So, basically the idea has always been to bring really sophisticated AI and robotics into the everyday person life through different forms of entertainment, but as soon as “Drive” came out, there was this recognition that this would be so much cooler, and the cars would seem so much smarter if we could drive around not just the three initial tracks that we launched with, but any track the player could possibly build. So, to see that dream come to fruition, to see people getting their hands on it and trying to build not just the eight tracks on the box, but countless combinations. It’s really awesome; it’s exactly what we were hoping to see.
So, that was really it, make toys on a platform for video games-like experiences in the real world and let people’s imaginations go wild, testing its limits. I feel like that’s what we’re starting to see.
PH: Speaking with Harold before, he was just like a little kid, I mean, he was so giddy, he was so happy. Is that like the atmosphere over here, or was that, you guys are kind of like big kids that just happen to be incredibly intelligent and have this vision for something special?
JO: Yeah, it absolutely is. There’s this wild mix of insanely bright folks who have deep expertise in different fields related to video games or robotics or AI or machine vision, machine learning, but pretty much everybody here also has this flip side like you’re saying, we’re also big kids who just want to do cool shit. We just wanna have fun. They wanna make fun and have fun while making fun and just confidently come up with ideas where somebody will say, ‘hey can we do this?’ And nobody knows the answer, and other teams out there, that would be a big red flag, for us. If we look around, and everybody’s nodding their heads too cocky, and they’re like, ‘yeah, we could totally do that.’ That’s when we get nervous. That’s when we’re like, ‘OK, that’s well-known territory, and we wanna be doing things that nobody else has tried. Maybe they won’t work, but we gotta find out.
PH: How do you think you guys are different from the ever-growing genre of toys-to-life games?
JO: For the same reason that I was attracted to Anki, coming from Activision to create the “Skylanders stuff where, we knew all along we were doing something special by bringing toys to life and having toys would be very cool sitting up on your shelf, but they don’t come to life in the real world, and so the technology here really allows us to do pretty much the opposite of that where we bring toys to life in the real world, and you can really only do that with this level of robotics and AI expertise, so what’s exciting about that is it’s something that we believe strongly it would take other teams a lot longer to catch up to that. And there’s that pioneering experience here so that definitely drives us.
First and foremost, we just wanna make fun, but when you can make fun and know that when doing it, you’re doing something that nobody else has done, and secondly if this becomes the big success that we expect it to be, it means that nobody else will be able to duplicate it. It means that we’re gonna be continuing to do something unique for some time to come. That’s super exciting. I think that’s the most direct answer. The technology required to do this is very different; the kind of expertise is very different from the technology and expertise required to do something like “Skylanders,” or “Disney Infinity,” or “LEGO Dimensions.” All of that stuff is great. I think those teams is creating amazing experiences, but the technology to interconnect the digital and physical is just very different from here.
To get really specific for a moment, there’s only a handful of real first-class robotics experts out there and we know that we’ve hired in a lot of them and a lot have been hired in at various different kinds of fields, Google self-driving cars, for example, military applications, so that there’s a very small pool of people who really know how to do this stuff, so that’s really exciting for us.
PH: How satisfying has it been to be the person that’s basically responsible for giving this franchise more of a heart, like you said before, like providing that story to really bring people in, ‘cause you’re gonna get the techies that love the tech, but you’re gonna get so many more people that are enthralled by the story, so how does it feel to be that person that’s like helping to put that story together to get more people interested in the product?
JO: Well, it’s funny you put it that way. ‘cause I feel like my job is more of like an enabler really because one of the things that excited me about these guys when I met them because the heart was already there. It just wasn’t coming out into the final product as much, so I felt like what I really do isn’t so much coming up with the ideas but taking the inspiration of the things that I can I see that are just under the surface of what so many people here can do, try to cherry pick the things that really work together that we can actually pull off and just kind of grease the runway so as much of that comes out in the final experience as possible.
And in a way, more than anything, making sure that folks feel comfortable letting their inner child out, right? Because so much of these ideas, they were already there, it’s just folks were a little more giddish, a little reserved about expressing it and just go, ‘hey, you know what guys? There’s such an opportunity for us to like fix out indicated in Toy Story movies where toys come to life when you’re not looking.
We can actually have those kinds of experiences; we can actually have your toys come to life, I can see that’s what you guys want to do. Let’s just be honest with ourselves about that and acknowledge that it’s super ambitious and risky, but just go for it anyway. If anything I just sort of bring that dream big mentality to the emotional piece, so that folks feel comfortable letting that part of their ambitions come out.
It feels great. I mean, that’s the bottom line. I feel like I just get to let folks dream and dream big and kind of hold their feet to the fire when they’re not dreaming big enough.
PH: So, I’m super curious about the future of the series. I’ve been playing with it for the past, ya know, two days, and I love it; I think it’s a really cool product, but I was just thinking, in a way you guys are kind of like the opposite of ‘Disney Infinity’ and ‘Skylanders’ just from a release point of view because it took those franchises a while to get to iOS, and you guys, this is like your debut on the iOS. Do you think in the future that you guys would consider going on a console, using a controller instead of the iOS?
JO: Yeah, we’re constantly on the lookout for that kind of thing. Ya know, our whole approach is, our focus is on using our robotics and AI to turn real-world objects into a platform for entertainment, for new kinds of experiences, to broaden what it means to play, so for us being on mobile devices wasn’t the goal, but it was just the most accessible starting point because we knew a lot of our audiences would have smart devices, and without these huge screens, they’re very mobile, so it just made sense to let people just hold that and kind of tilt their smart device up and right to steer and have a simple on screen for auto, but we looked at and experimented with using consoles for enabling those same kinds of experiences so I think when the time is right when we can find an interface that can use a console that doesn’t get in the way of the direct experience when bringing toys to life, then we’ll be more than happy to do that It’s definitely something on our minds that we’re keeping an eye out for. I don’t know that the perfect console platform for that kind of thing is out there yet, but definitely is something that we’re keeping an eye out for.
PH: Everyone kid has their fond memories of their toys growing up, or video games, how do you want young kids, and families, to look back at this product five, ten years from now. How do you want it to have played an affect their creativity and their time with each other.
JO: There’s a lot of levels to that question. One of them is focusing back on “Overdrive” where the first thing that it really felt like AI has come to life in their living space, that it wasn’t the Terminator, right? There’s a lot of stories out there, in fiction, and it’s easy to understand why people would go there, but AI and robotics are usually in fiction depicted as they’re coming to take our jobs, take over the world and all of that. But we see the world where robotics and humans work together. Robots just help us be better at what we are just trying to do in our daily lives, including just having more fun.
So, if people look back on Anki Drive as the first thing where it felt like AI was really alive in their living space and it just allowed them to have more fun and it gave them a new platform for imagination. To me, that’s the dream.
PH: Alright, bottom line, why should someone pick this up. And we’ll have fun with this question, like, we’ll kind of pretend you’re like Jiminy Cricket. You’re on some shoulder and you can kind of like whisper in their ear and give them that little push to bring this home to the family. Why do you think someone should?
JO: Because it’s just straight-up magical, something where, even more so the early days on ‘Skylanders’ when we saw putting a toy on a portal and having the character come to life in the digital experience. That was magical. In fact, we called it the magic moment because at that moment we really believed in that magic. What will be fun with our thing is somebody puts the car down on the track, and the car comes alive, and it just knows what to do and where to go without you having to do anything, and so if you wanted to take control, there’s an even more powerful magic to that moment there’s something about, i think deep down it’s just been in our psyche as humans for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, this magical idea of inanimate objects just coming to life, and we’re actually able to begin fulfilling that dream, and there’s something just kind of shocking to the system about that happening.
And so, we have been already in the first product ‘Drive,’ and now ‘OverDrive,’ with this richer gameplay there, it has that but magnified tenfold because there’s all of this story being told and there’s a richness of character and so much more variety of the gameplay, that initial magic of, ‘Wow, this inanimate thing just truly came to life in my space.’ It’s just so powerful, and it’s one of the things that I think you just have to experience. I could waste 1,000 words trying to describe what that’s like, but I think people just need to experience it firsthand.