Whether he's designing flashy sci-fi vehicles for blockbuster films, pint-sized racers that fit in the palm of your hand, or real-world rides for top auto manufacturers, Harald Belker knows cars.
More specifically, he knows how to make them look ultra slick – which is why consumer robotics company Anki brought him into the fold to help shape its new line of innovative self-driving robot toy cars. As the creative mind behind the look of Anki Drive's sleek racing machines, this designer’s creations are taking the toy world by storm.
Anki Drive is captivating both young and old alike with its futuristic video game-style spin on classic slot car racing. Using miniature robotics and artificial intelligence paired with iOS control, this high-tech toy lets players zip around the track at intense speed, battling it out in racing death matches that blur the line between the real and virtual worlds.
Anki Drive in action. (Image credit: Mashable)
You can take over a car directly or watch the AI battle it out on its own, adapting on-the-fly to matches as they unfold. It's fascinating to watch. The cars aren't just burning up the track, however -- they're also burning holes in consumers' wallets and generating serious buzz.
The cutting edge technology that makes Anki Drive possible is only part of its winning formula. Anki needed to nail the look and physical design of each car in order to build a real connection between these robot racers and the humans directing them. To accomplish this, it decided to call in the big guns.
An eye for auto
At 6'7", Belker's massive frame seems almost larger-than-life, but his 25+ year background in automotive and product design is no less impressive.
After designing real-world rides for Porsche and Mercedes Benz, Belker shifted gears and set his sights on the entertainment industry. From creating the Batmobile for the film Batman and Robin, to designing futuristic vehicles for major blockbuster properties, including MinorityReport and Tron: Legacy, his movie work spans more than 20 feature films. Along the way, he's also designed a broad range of consumer products, including Hot Wheels, electric bicycles, sunglasses, and beyond.
When Anki first approached him about taking the lead product design role for its ambitious project, he was intrigued.
"I thought it was very cool what they were trying to do," he says. "They didn't just have a clear vision, they also had the knowledge and contacts to put this together and succeed."
Working within the tight dimensional limitations for the cars was an interesting challenge, despite lots of flexibility in regards to their appearance otherwise. Physical specs for the racers changed dramatically after two months of work on the project, requiring a design reboot, but Belker, always a tinkerer, welcomed the opportunity to further improve on his early designs.
"As for the look or design of the vehicles they put their trust in me," he says. "They understood that this is what I do."
Prototyping in 3D with MODO
Belker is one of a new breed of designers that’s taken the plunge into advanced 3D content creation. His design process has changed dramatically since he started using MODO, a 3D modeling and animation suite used heavily in the industrial design, video game design, and visual FX industries.
Previously, he used to sketch out his product designs for presentations by hand, drawing up each prototype from numerous perspectives to pass off to a modeler to turn into a physical model. He now creates virtual 3D models that he can tweak on-the-screen to perfection before making a physical prototype.
"Today, I still sketch an idea and then immediately go into 3D with MODO. Here I can quickly explore shapes and work out features and see if they work in a 3D space. Something that I needed to assume before, now I have the instant feedback and can move along," he says. "It is absolutely essential to my process. I only work in MODO now."
Belker begins each Anki virtual car design by importing chassis with preset dimension walls, placing the dome center and windshield, and adding in any fenders and any other essential body parts. From there, he zooms in to each segment to add edges and sculpts a distinct look for the car. Through screenshots of his work-in-progress, he's able to fire off quick updates to Anki HQ to get near-instant feedback, and making important changes is a speedy process.
The Finish Line?
It takes about two weeks to complete the initial design for each Anki Drive car, he says. Once that's complete, it takes another four weeks to finish a tooling model. Belker is already hard at work on new prototypes to roll out now that Anki Drive is out in the wilds of many household living rooms.
Making mini-racers that look good and perform properly is no easy feat. There's 21mm between the wheel openings for each car, and there can't be any overlapping surfaces or undercuts in the design. While the Anki Drive cars are still larger than Hot Wheels or Matchbox racers, designing good-looking rides that conform to the tight spec requirements to house all the electronic innards while remaining aerodynamic poses a unique challenge.
"You need to explore different shapes and think outside the box," says Belker, who notes the importance of being inventive when working with limited surfacing to tweak.
Despite the trickiness in crafting cars at such a small scale, Belker enjoys his work immensely. "Designing toys is very quick and rewarding," he admits. "I like the challenges that these Anki cars give me."
He says working with limitations, particularly when the purpose is to improve and control the performance directly, can be exhilarating when overcoming each new design obstacle that pops up.
Of course, Anki Drive isn't just all about work for Belker either. He plays it with his eight-year-old daughter who loves to race against him.
"I assume it won't take long before she runs circles around me," he jokes. "A lot of friends who are buying the product are also looking forward to come over and play. I guess everybody wants to kick my butt."
You can check out our previous case study on the use of Modo in Monkey Slam by clicking here.