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How a New Computing Interface Stacks Up

Sifteo blocks aim for an interactive, physical computer-game experience
June 15, 2011

Later this year, the startup Sifteo, based in San Francisco, will bring to market handheld, computerized cubes that can sense each other and run a variety of interactive programs. Recently, Technology Review got a chance to review the blocks ahead of their launch.

Tilt, Flip, and Shuffle: Sifteo blocks sense their physical orientation and proximity to each other—abilities around which designers can build games such as Chroma Shuffle, above.

By adding computing power to blocks, the founders hope they can create a new kind of game interface—one that keeps users connected to the physical world but also provides intelligent feedback. Sifteo blocks come in sets of three, though people can use up to six for a single application. The blocks contain sensors to detect their orientation and position with respect to other blocks. A block knows when the user flips it over, tilts it, places it near other blocks, or presses on its display screen.

To use the blocks, a person has to install the “Siftrunner” program on a Mac or PC and plug a wireless link into the computer’s USB port. From there, the computer coordinates the software running on the blocks and keeps them operating in sync. Users can download applications to run on the blocks from an app store that’s accessible through the program.

The games currently available for the blocks, created by the company’s in-house developers, highlight the potential of Sifteo. For example, the company has made a demonstration game that displays letters on the blocks’ screens. Users can build words by organizing the blocks and touching them together. The tactile process of moving the blocks contributes to the appeal. In this case, three blocks isn’t enough—adults will want more.

Probably the most polished game now available is called Chroma Shuffle. The game is reminiscent of hits such as Tetris and Collapse. Users match up colored pieces on different blocks in order to clear screens and progress through puzzles. Game developer Josh Lee has deftly used the physical-manipulation aspect to enhance the puzzles—in many cases, judicious tilting at the right moment is needed to achieve the solution. Carelessly shuffling the blocks can also get the user “stuck.”

The  interaction between blocks is impressively smooth. They easily detect each other and their orientation, and stay well coordinated. Very rarely, a slight lag occurs after the user performs an action and before the block’s display reacts to it. The devices burn through battery power relatively quickly—after about two hours of continuous play, the blocks were running low. However, this isn’t much of a problem because they need to stay near a computer anyway, so there’s likely an outlet nearby to recharge them.

The blocks have their origins at MIT’s Media Lab, but the Media Lab blocks cost $200 each. Sifteo’s version is far cheaper: when they go on sale later this year, the blocks will cost $149 for a set of three. Additional cubes cost $45 each. The software allows the use of up to six at a time, and people can share cubes and play together.

The sensors in the two versions of the blocks provide the user with the same experience, says Sifteo cofounder Jeevan Kalanithi, though the company has changed the way certain features work. For example, the Media Lab blocks sense neighboring blocks via infrared, but Sifteo has replaced that system with electromagnetic sensors.

Andrew Rollings, a developer known for his writing on game design, says that the blocks are a very interesting concept, though probably challenging to design for. And the features they already have inspire a wish list of more. He says, “I’d like to see touch sensitivity to complement the existing tilt and proximity sensitivity, as well as an increase in the number that can be used together.” If the cost isn’t prohibitive, he adds, they’d be even more appealing with screens on more than one side.  

To allow third-party developers to experiment with the platform, Sifteo has also created a software development kit, which it expects to release later this year.