Sifteo Builds New Gaming Platform Using Interactive Cubes

Love video games but want the kind of physical and social interactivity that board games deliver? That’s the motivation behind the development of Sifteo Cubes, the touchscreen cubes that communicate wirelessly and have sensors on each of their four sides. As CEO David Merrill explained to TechCrunch at this year’s CES, Sifteo Cubes are a “interactive play system that is tactile” and are part of a growing trend toward “physical digital play.”

Back in 2010, Sifteo was prototyping its blocks named Siftables, which eventually became the first generation cubes that were sold as a three pack with a recharging station for $130. The second-generation cubes have been re-engineered so that the base runs apps and wirelessly controls the cubes. Each cube has a 2D graphics engine. Merrill describes it as a “distributed graphics system that drives gameplay logic from the base.” The system can work with up to 12 cubes and game functions expand as more cubes are added.

The same price point of $130 will get you three Sifteo cubes with the base, and additional cubes cost $30 each. The set comes with four games installed and a fifth can be downloaded for free. A few other games are available for around $10. These games range from puzzle games to RPGs and there’s even a Ninja Turtles game available. To get additional games, the base needs to sync with Sifteo’s application that runs on a desktop computer.

To really understand the difference playing games with physical objects makes in terms of gameplay and social interactions, check out Sifteo’s commercial for the cubes:

Having originated the project at the MIT Media Labs, the now San Francisco-based team at Sifteo have proven their commitment to the development of novel hardware. In fact, the developers made their own Bluetooth-like wireless protocol to keep everything in sync. The next step for the company is to convince game developers to build on the platform, which may be trickier than it would seem. After all, gameplay with the cubes is highly interactive and dependent on the manipulation of multiple physical objects, so it would be a challenge to design a game that could possibly be cross-platform.

Though Sifteo came just before the Kickstarter boom, the product seems aimed at that audience of developers, enthusiasts, and people wanting to invest in innovative technologies. The company has also released an SDK for developers. Hopefully Merrill’s presence at CES can help open up a larger customer base.

In fact, here’s Merrill talking to Engadget at CES about the cubes:

The idea behind Sifteo Cubes is innovative, for sure. However, it’s questionable whether the system will get widespread traction. One reason is that a few years ago Hasbro toyed with a very low-end version of a similar product in its Flash Cubes product line, which takes the classic games of Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Simon and reworked them to use the cubes as manipulatives. It’s hard to say how successful this line has been since its launch in 2010, but it’s important to note that no new games were launched using this design.

Additionally, Radica Games put out a line of gaming cubes in 2006 called  Cube World that had 2D people that could interact across the cubes. Even though these games had fewer capabilities, they were a lot cheaper and available widely, yet they failed to achieve widespread popularity and have been discontinued.

Clearly, Sifteo Cubes are much more sophisticated than either of these, but there’s a bigger competitor in this space: mobile devices. If there was an enormous market for “physical digital gameplay”, one would reasonably expect proximity multiplayer modes with smartphones to be all the rage, but that just hasn’t happened. One also wonders whether Apple could have explored a similar kind of gameplay concept with iPods, such as the sixth generation Nanos, which themselves look a lot like the Sifteo Cubes but are considerably more expensive.

As with any new gaming platform, such as the Android-based Ouya, the proof will be in interplay of customer demand and developer response. Hopefully, Sifteo can get people on both sides of the video-board game divide to give the cubes a try.

The concept underlying Sifteo Cubes is exciting, no doubt — the idea of modular computer display and input devices is very “Internet of Things” and distributed, responsive devices that are proximity sensitive underlies the magic of swarm robotics, which has awesome written all over it. But whether gamers will flock to a new $130 platform with an unfamiliar interface is probably not in the cards. More likely, Sifteo’s offering will find a niche market and perhaps move into the educational space or find therapeutic utility.

Here’s hoping these little cubes can find good homes.

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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