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A View from Erica Naone

Simple Yet Smart Cubes Go On Sale

Sifteo is taking pre-orders for its sensor-filled blocks.

  • August 11, 2011

The San Francisco company Sifteo is accepting pre-orders for its interactive cubes today. The blocks have the simplicity of a child’s toy, but they’re loaded with sensors that are far from simple. The devices can detect their orientation and position with respect to other blocks. They also detect when they’re flipped over, tilted, or pressed on.

Sifteo cubes, shown above, are now available for preorder. Credit: Sifteo

A program called Siftrunner, operating from a Mac or PC, coordinates the blocks wirelessly. Users can play casual and learning games downloaded from an app store (Watch a video demo of the blocks).

But Sifteo’s founders have also placed strong emphasis on allowing people to design their own ways to interact with the blocks. The company released a software development kit earlier this year that made it possible for third parties to program Sifteo cubes.

Sifteo decided that didn’t go far enough. “We really want to make devices that people can make their own,” says cofounder Jeevan Kalanithi.

The company designed a Creativity Kit that comes with the blocks. The kit allows someone with no programming skills to adjust and customize software for Sifteo. For example, a parent could use the kit to feed the blocks a specific set of vocabulary words for use in a word game. “It’s not good enough if only programmers can customize the cubes,” says cofounder David Merrill.

In the future, they plan to build more software for the cubes as a company, as well as to offer expansions for the Creativity Kit that extend what users can create. Sifteo has also signed on well-known puzzle designers such as Scott Kim and Tyler Hinman to work with the devices.

I first spoke with Sifteo’s founders in 2009, after a TED Talk that made a wide audience aware of the technology:

David Merrill, who invented Siftables with Jeevan Kalanithi, 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 also offered thoughts that have proven prescient in the years since 2009, particularly in light of the impact of interfaces such as the Kindle:

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.”

Sifteo cubes retail for $149 for a set of three, and $45 for each additional cube. For a full review of the blocks, see the piece I wrote earlier this year, or watch them in action in this video.

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