Alumni Snapshots: Mark Palatucci, Boris Sofman and Hanns Tappeiner

Anki Inc. made its high-profile debut on the world stage June 10 when the company’s first product, Anki Drive, was demonstrated during the keynote at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

Mark Palatucci

  • B.S.E., computer science and engineering, University of Pennsylvania, 2000
  • M.S., robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008
  • Ph.D., robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, 2011

Boris Sofman

  • B.S., electrical and computer engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, 2005
  • B.S., computer science, Carnegie Mellon University, 2005
  • M.S., robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, 2007
  • Ph.D., robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, 2010

Hanns Tappeiner

  • Dipl. Ing. Inf., Technische Universität Wien, Austria, 2004
  • M.S., robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008

(Editor’s Note: We’re trying something different with the “Alumni Snapshots” in this issue. We’ve interviewed, together, the three co-founders of San Francisco-based Anki Inc.)

Anki Inc. made its high-profile debut on the world stage June 10 when the company’s first product, Anki Drive, was demonstrated during the keynote at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

Anki Drive runs on Apple’s iOS and allows users to control toy racecars from their iOS devices. It’s the first game where real, moving objects simultaneously interact with a virtual environment, their physical surroundings and one another.

Netscape co-founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who serves on the Anki board of directors, calls it “the best robotics startup I have ever seen.”  

Anki’s three co-founders met at Carnegie Mellon in 2005. All of them grew up with an interest in technology—especially robotics.  

“As a kid, I was always interested in making things that could interact with the real world,” says Hanns Tappeiner, who was born in Germany and raised in northern Italy. “One time, I tried to build a machine that could steal candy out of a candy jar. It never really worked! Later, I took up building things in Lego and hooked my creations up to really, really early versions of microcontrollers.”

By the time Tappeiner completed his undergraduate work at Austria’s Technical University of Vienna, he’d been doing robotics “for a very long time,” both as a hobby and as a field of study.

Boris Sofman was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a child. His earliest computing experience was programming in Logo, the educational language that allowed users to program either an on-screen turtle or a real-world robot. He came to CMU to earn degrees in both engineering and computer science.

“The idea of making things in the physical world was very exciting to me,” Sofman says. “As an undergrad, I got to participate in a couple of projects at the Field Robotics Center where people were working on autonomous navigation, with robots that could sense and avoid obstacles, and as I was applying to grad schools, I realized the kind of robotics I wanted to study was being done best at CMU.”

Mark Palatucci was just 5 years old when his dad brought an IBM PCjr—the family’s first personal computer—into their Philadelphia home. “I immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “By the time I was 6, I started learning BASIC, and by the time I was 10 years old, my aunt bought me my first robotics kit.” That kit, and others he assembled, are on his desk at Anki 25 years later.

He graduated from Penn, moved to Silicon Valley and started Copera, a company that developed software for handheld PCs and early smartphones. “I also started volunteering on Stanford’s DARPA Grand Challenge team in 2004 to help build the Stanley robot, and met a lot of really incredible people,” including former CMU professor Sebastian Thrun, Palatucci says. “They were all super-smart and they had all come from CMU’s Robotics Institute.” He applied and was accepted into the Ph.D. program.

Besides robotics, the three also shared an interest in consumer products. “Whenever we brainstormed things, it was never about, ‘What can we do in the lab?’” Tappeiner says. “Instead, it was always, ‘What can we do to make this a viable product?’”

The idea that evolved into Anki Drive can be described in four words, according to Sofman. “Real-world Sim City,” he says. “Sim City is an intelligent ecosystem. We wondered how we could make that environment possible in the real world. How could we make a physical object—a car—understand where it was located in its environment, very precisely? How could we make the algorithms efficient enough to do it, and how could we deliver it at a price point that people can afford?”

In laboratory research, Sofman says, it doesn’t matter if a robot needs a $5,000 sensor and “a crazy amount of computation,” but that simply won’t work for a consumer product.

Anki Drive solves the efficiency problem by separating higher-level functions—those that control game play—from less-complex functions. Although the remote cars each have an onboard 50 MHz microcontroller as well as navigational sensors, the artificial intelligence required to play a game is done completely on the user’s iPhone running the Anki Drive app. The cars communicate with the app and one another via Bluetooth LE. Tappeiner compares it to the human body’s separation of autonomous nervous system functions, such as breathing, from conscious, deliberative decisions made by the brain.

Trying to offload all of the decision-making ability to the remote device wouldn’t work, Sofman says. “There’s too much latency, and the bandwidth also wouldn’t support it,” he says.

The separation of functions also ensures the long-term value of the system, Palatucci says. “The mechanical parts onboard the cars only control their basic functionality,” he says. “Over time, we not only can upgrade the software in the app, but we can also upgrade the software used by the microcontrollers in the cars.”

Apple’s iOS 6 ecosystem was the perfect platform for Anki Drive, Palatucci says, because it was one of the first consumer products to support Bluetooth LE, which was designed for low-power consumption and control of multiple devices at the same time.

For anyone who’s enjoyed either conventional remote-control cars or video racing simulations, the prospect of combining the two is appealing. Now imagine scaling up Anki Drive, and using Bluetooth LE and iPads to control larger moving objects—say, robots delivering products in a distribution center, or mass-transit vehicles traveling between stations.

That’s exactly what the Anki co-founders have in mind. While Anki Drive is a finished, sellable product, it’s also a proof-of-concept for a new way of mass-producing semi-autonomous robotic devices.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure Anki was a robotics company, and not a games company or a toy company,” Sofman says. “Entertainment is familiar, it’s fun, and there isn’t a massive number of regulatory barriers, so we thought this was a way to enter the market and re-invent the way people play.

“But the ability to do position-sensing in the real world, and to deploy efficient algorithms that deal with uncertainty, all of those things are in Anki Drive already,” he says. “We want to make the most practical robots that are deliverable today, and then become more and more advanced, tackling larger and larger problems.”

Launching a high-profile startup company has taken its toll on the founders’ personal lives. “I used to have outside interests,” Sofman says, laughing. “It’s gotten a little bit harder lately. I play a lot of tennis, and I’ve started biking. California is a very nice place for that.”

Palatucci learned to fly single-engine private planes while he was at CMU, though like Sofman, he also doesn’t have much time for hobbies these days.

Adds Tappeiner: “Quite frankly, you can’t start a company like this if it’s not also your hobby.”

Key to Anki’s development has been the continuing connection between the company and the School of Computer Science. At this writing, the company employs about four dozen people, one-fourth of whom have ties to the Robotics Institute. “It’s definitely a core part of what we’re doing here, and we’re very thankful for the experience we had at CMU,” says Tappeiner, adding that working with RI research professor Ralph Hollis helped to shape his own ideas.

Palatucci says Tom Mitchell, head of CMU’s Machine Learning Department, was a key influence, while Sofman says RI research professor Tony Stentz and associate professor Drew Bagnell had a big impact on his work.

“We had great advisors and great colleagues,” Sofman says. “What we’ve achieved at Anki on a technical scale was built on things we learned at the Robotics Institute.”

—Jason Togyer (DC’96)

For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |