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Building Blocks of a New Interface

Media Lab toys feature cutting-edge technology and design.
June 23, 2009

Siftables look a lot like a set of children’s blocks. They’re small, they’re easy to stack and shuffle, and their colorful screens (based on organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs) even display letters and numbers sometimes. But while they’re intended to be fun, the little devices, developed at the Fluid Interfaces Group in the Media Lab, are actually cookie-size computers that reflect cutting-edge technology and new ideas in interface design.

Siftables are “cookie-scale” computers. Their size and shape allow them to be manipulated in ways that mirror alphabet blocks and other educational toys familiar from childhood, but they are interactive: they sense each other, keep track of their own motion, display graphics, and communicate wirelessly.

Accelerometers allow Siftables to sense how they’re being moved when users sort, pile, or group them, and each block contains Bluetooth and infrared systems that allow it to detect and communicate with neighboring Siftables or with other Bluetooth-enabled devices. This allows for some novel applications. Siftables can become a word game: for example, when a user arranges blocks displaying different letters to spell a word correctly, they play victory sounds. The designers have also demonstrated more-sophisticated applications, such as using Siftables to create original mixes of electronic music.

David Merrill, PhD ‘09, who invented Siftables with Jeevan Kalanithi, SM ‘07, says the devices offer an alternative to the way users interact with electronics on the desktop. “The mouse and keyboard have been around for as long as they have not because everybody stopped innovating but because they are pretty useful,” he says. “But I don’t think they’re the best we can do.”

Merrill has long been interested in how people use computers. The inspiration for Siftables came, he says, when he started reflecting that people can manipulate physical objects in ways that they normally can’t manipulate information. When designing Siftables, Merrill says, the group looked at the way children interact with the world around them and tried to apply some of those patterns.

Merrill and Kalanithi are working to commercialize the devices through a San Francisco-based company they founded called Sifteo. Merrill says that Siftables have obvious appeal as toys, but he also thinks they can be used to help create storyboards for creative projects, to organize information, or for any application where it’s useful to manipulate data quickly and intuitively by hand. The company is currently working to secure funding and find low-cost versions of the parts needed to build the devices.

In the next two years, we can expect to see more interfaces that take advantage of “how we think and perceive the world, how our bodies work, and how we’re able to manipulate objects,” Merrill says. Computer applications designed for the two-dimensional computer screen have already proved incredibly powerful, he says. “But I think there’s also a real advantage to hooking into [abilities] that we’ve evolved to be good at.”

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