Review: Smartphone-controlled racing with Robotic Enhanced Vehicles

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The REV system allows players to square off against one another or a computerized foe(Credit: David Szondy/Gizmag)

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Remote controlled cars make for some great small-scale demolition derbies, but unless there's a second person to play with, the game gets dull real fast. At this year's London Toy Fair, WowWee unveiled its Robotic Enhanced Vehicles (REV), robotic race cars that allow players to battle against one another or against an AI opponent. We recently charged up a pair, launched the control app, and let the mayhem begin.

Out of the box, our REV review system came as a starter kit of two cars – one black and one white – each powered by four AA batteries. Designed for indoor use, WowWee says they can handle most surfaces, including carpet, hardwood and tile. In addition to batteries, a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone running iOS 8 or later or Android 4.4.3 or later is also required. A downloadable app links the phone to the vehicles, configures player profiles, and displays the health of players and AI characters during the contest.

Once the app and cars are communicating, users can choose to play against another person or select a choice of AI characters of different strengths and weapon combos, which operate the second car. The company says that up to 16 players and cars can join in the games, which include a straightforward duel with an opponent, a campaign involving a series of battles with AI characters of increasing skill, team battles, capture the flag, chase and evade, and others.

The basic game is like a mix of demolition derby and a shoot-em-up match, as the cars attack one another either by collision or an array of virtual weapons ranging from machine guns and plasma blasters to EMP bombs, mine fields, and air strikes. To counter these there are a choice of shields and health packs. Defeating an AI character unlocks weapons and other features.

This is managed partly through the app, which felt like a mix of a standard smartphone remote vehicle controller and a mobile game. The cars are equipped with WowWee's BeaconSense technology, which is "a proprietary indoor GPS system" that uses optical sensors to detect its surroundings, and other vehicles, and navigate accordingly.

Play is governed by what the company calls Simulated Damage Vehicle Physics. That is, when the cars attack one another by ramming or by virtual weapons, their behavior imitates the real-world. Each car reacts to a virtual hit as if it was real. A car hit from behind will lunge forward and a hit from the side will alter its course. Too much damage will see an AI flees until "healed," then go back on the attack.

In addition to the REV cars, we also tested a couple of accessories. The Ramp, which runs on four AAA batteries and also features BeaconSense, acts as a bonus point in the game. By jumping the Ramp, each player wins new weapons, restores health, or damages the opponent depending on how it's set.

The other accessory is the power pack, which replaces the battery carrier. It charges using a Micro USB cable that plugs into a standard charger. This can save a small fortune on disposable batteries, though you may want invest in a longer cable as we found those supplied to be a bit on the short side. Charging using the packs was on the slow side though, taking over four hours, and each charge only lasted two to three hours, depending on play.

As far as our impressions go, REV is a very simple looking, but very complex toy with a lot of AI, Boss opponents, weapon levels, and other complications suited to the 8 to 15-year old market. So if it does manage to catch a kid's attention the first day, it has a lot of replay value. The app was very simple to download, the system very easy to set up, and the moment the AI car tore off on its own, then turned back to attack, we experienced a real adrenalin rush.

We found the cars very disappointing from an aesthetic point of view – a bit like a pair of roughly sculpted Koenigsegg models without much detailing. However, it soon became clear that these cars are made extremely rugged in order to take a lot of pounding. The cars rocketed about, the AI became very aggressive once it sighted the other car, and the contest became a spectator sport as the player's car responded to hits and veered off. Unlike other RV cars that have a thin plastic body clipped to the chassis, the solid monocoques of the REV cars did survive multiple jammings under the cooker in the kitchen, though such encounters did leave deep gouges in the plastic bonnet.

In terms of mechanics, the cars are very simple with a pair of passive front wheels and independently motored rear wheels that provide power and steering, as well as a very small turning radius. Each car also has an array of BeaconSense lenses that allow each one to see and track the other within a radius of 5 m (16 ft). The Ramp also has these, so it can lay down virtual minefields and other hazards.

We discovered that handling the cars was very tricky at first because the controls were extremely sensitive and not very intuitive. We found that a neophyte was better off taking the time to practice with one car, because doing so with a computerized maniac on the hunt made it difficult to learn how to reverse properly. The app could definitely use a more comprehensive tutorial, though WowWee does have a video discussing how to use the system.

The REV app for iOS/Android smart devices(Credit: WowWee)

Linking each REV to the mobile device running the app was a simple matter of holding the phone above the car to be controlled. Unfortunately, the app tended to crash quite a bit or lose contact with the cars without warning. Another drawback was that the app didn't provide much of a clue about what was going on in the game apart from a lot of noises and a status light on the back of the cars. There were readouts, but they were very simple and it was hard to even glance at them and keep control of the cars at the same time.

Just getting over the ramp, for example, was an quite an achievement, but whatever was achieved by this was never really made clear. The end of each game was something of an anti-climax, and was difficult to distinguish from a crashed app. Both felt the same; the cars just stopped moving.

That the REV cars are designed for indoor use only becomes apparent quite quickly. Though they can take collisions in their stride, the cars don't like drops of any real height, so curb leaps could easily break a wheel. That being said, they were very forgiving to indoor hazards, such as pet hair, minor debris, and the inevitable dust bunnies encountered after running under the cabinets.

However, the cars were very fussy about surfaces. They did very well on linoleum and hardwood, but carpets slowed them down and often stopped them. We also found that performance improved when fluorescent lights were switched off because they seemed to interfere with the BeaconSense technology.

We wanted to try the cars outside to see how well they did in a really big space, so we took them to a car park. They did okay, but the wheel clearance is so small that even nubbly tarmac gave them trouble – slowing them down and even stopping them at times. They also didn't do well on much of any incline.

They could be used on level surfaces made of smooth, fine-grained cement in good condition on an overcast day to cut down on UV interference and making the phone display visible, but that's quite a shopping list. Paradoxically, a wide open space gave them lots of room to maneuver, but the lack of walls seemed to interfere with their navigation as they would often wander off aimlessly.

For the acid test, we handed the REV cars over to a 13-year old test driver. She reported finding the cars a little frustrating at first and it was hard to figure out what anything does, but the games were fun to play and would be perfect for video gamers. Her main criticism was that she soon found a weapons combo that allowed her to paralyze and destroy any AI opponent at leisure, so she felt the system to be more for the 8 to 9-year old group. And more machine guns would be nice, too.

The REV starter kit is available for US$99.99, the Smart Ramp sells for $39.99 and the Recharge packs are $29.99.

The video below introduces the REV cars.

Source: WowWee

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