This story properly begins two years ago, when a professor showed me the TED Talk for something new called “Siftables.” They were these magical little cubes, built by a MIT grad student, that could talk to each other and serve as an app and game development platform.
This past January, Siftables (rebranded Sifteo Cubes) became available in an “Early Access” program. It was quantity-limited, so I made the somewhat rash decision to buy a pack for $100 that included three cubes, a dock, the USB dongle, and some apps (and the obligatory free T-shirt).
The Cubes got here Monday, and that $100 was one of the best expenses of this decade.
In the first 72 hours of owning them, I’ve fascinated over 20 people, incited huge collaborative gaming parties that last for hours, and found the Cubes a semi-permanent place in my backpack next to the textbooks and laptops. People will approach me in the CS labs asking to play “the color game” or see “the little computer tiles.”
What makes the Cubes so attractive as a gaming platform? At heart, it’s exactly what David Merrill talked about in his first TED Talk and in subsequent publicity releases. To this point, there’s been a noticeable divide between games that are digital and games that are physical. To play a video game, you need a screen - from iPod to console to PC, there’s no easy way out of the screen requirement.
The Sifteo Cubes break that requirement. Because they’re individual pieces that each have their own computing capability, but interface with a user primarily through physical manipulation, the Cubes bridge video gaming with physical gaming. And because of the tangibility they bring, they introduce a social aspect much more easily than picking up an Xbox controller does. In the past three days, I’ve seen more people brought together by touching two Cubes edge-to-edge than I’ve ever seen make friends over a gaming console.
I convinced a friend to buy his own set of the Cubes as well, so between us we had six - the maximum supported simultaneously on one laptop. We rapidly discovered that when you have six Cubes, it’s hard to go back to three. Especially with word games, where one Cube is one letter, the extra three Cubes bring the game up to the point where it’s involving - and almost challenging - for a single player, and easily picked up by two or three people.
We spent over an hour playing “Chroma Shuffle,” a spinoff of the old eliminate-color-groups game that seems to crop up now and again. The idea is that each block has colored dots on it, which can only be removed by matching them against other dots on adjacent blocks. (The Cubes talk to each other when touched together, so the primary method of play is by matching or joining Cubes in different configurations to manipulate the on-screen action.)
This isn’t to say the Cubes are perfect; there are a few remaining issues that, if not showstoppers, are going to be consistent complaints until they’re addressed. Even casual players have been surprised or concerned about a couple of these, despite having only seen the Cubes for a couple minutes.
First and foremost is the “laptop limitation.” The Cubes need a running laptop nearby with a special USB dongle and application to control their application selection and connection. This can sometime hinders the all-important social aspect: if a couple friends want to play, but I don’t have a laptop nearby, there’s nothing we can do.
The second big problem is the six-Cube limit. While six is plenty for every game we’ve played so far (and more would make some games too easy), it’s pretty trivial to see how having ten (or twenty, or a hundred) cubes would expand the potential applications of the Cubes even more. From a technical aspect, it’s even worse since the Cubes run over a 2.4GHz link, which means we’re not even dealing with the Bluetooth device limit - there’s something else mysterious at play, which usually translates to “I don’t know why we can’t have more Cubes.”
Other problems have been strangely absent from what’s billed as an Early Access, developer-oriented program. Hardware support is flat-out magical: we were once mid-game with three Cubes when someone else came down the hall with the other set. The coordinating application picked up the new Cubes and introduced them mid-game without a break in the action. No game has crashed. Even the purchase process for new games is reasonably seamless - most games go from the Internet to the Cubes in less than five minutes, and none have taken more than ten.
The last lingering frustration is the lack of an available SDK or API. It’s “coming soon,” to be sure, but it’s annoying to have hardware and do little more than playtest it. One professor even suggested building a simulator to play with while the official kit is still in development.
All in all, the Sifteo Cubes are just about what they’re billed to be - a thorough change in the gaming paradigm, and more than worth their cost. The best part: Early Access members get a 50% discount on their next purchase, and I can’t wait to spend mine.