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The Story Behind Sifteo Cubes

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Here is the story behind Sifteo Cubes, the award-winning interactive gaming system that redefined what a video game could be and continues to do some serious mold-breaking (see our review of the Sifteo Cubes here). In order to get the inside scoop on how this category-redefining product came into being I went straight to the source and spoke with Dave Merrill, one of Sifteo’s co-founders. Not only is he an expert in cutting-edge human-computer interaction, he is also a frequent speaker in the domains of user interface innovation, the future of play and entrepreneurship. He and his work have been featured by TED, MoMA, the Discovery Channel, and Wired… but enough about Dave. Here’s the Sifteo Cubes story in Dave’s own words.

The idea for Sifteo Cubes was born when Jeevan Kalanithi (Sifteo co-founder) and I were thinking about future interfaces and human capabilities in the kitchen at the MIT Media Lab when we were graduate students. We wondered: what if interacting with computers could be like jamming your hands into a pile of LEGOs or arranging alphabet blocks? Human hands are so skilled at manipulating real three-dimensional objects, and we imagined what it would be like if information and media could be handled in a similar way, projecting forward to all kinds of uses—it was an amazing and productive brainstorm.

The Sifteo Cubes design was inspired by classic game pieces and other physical objects like dominoes and wooden blocks. The physicality of the devices is really important, since they are grasped and moved continually during play. Sifteo Cubes were designed to feel precious and personal and good in your hand, like a worry stone that you want to turn over and over.

An early Sifteo Cubes concept design courtesy of New Deal Design.

Sifteo Cubes have definitely evolved over time. The Original (first generation) Sifteo Cubes system ran games from within our desktop software on a computer—so players needed to stick near their computer to play. Also, the original system could use a maximum of 6 cubes at a time and shipped with a bulky charging dock. The new cubes have a portable Base (the “brain”) that runs games anywhere, and no dock and now games can use up to 12 cubes at a time!

The architecture and implementation of the Base’s operating system is a modern marvel. Essentially, the system runs apps on a very low-power processor in an extremely high-performance and secure manner. An entire team at a place like Google or VMware would typically be required to build something like this, but Sifteo’s tiny, talented crew was able to pull it off and what was a major breakthrough!

Developing games for a brand-new platform is really difficult. The team of the Sifteo game studio created a fantastic, polished set of launch titles for the new platform while the platform itself was still under development! One takeaway from the experience is that having a really good simulator (we do) can go a long way toward making up for not-ready hardware, allowing games to get finished on-time.

When we announced the new Sifteo Cubes at the PAX Prime conference, almost the entire company came along to celebrate. We rented three condos in the Seattle suburbs and a couple large vans, and visited a bunch of great restaurants and bars together as one big group in-between board game sessions. Then on our last day we rented a boat and took a cruise from Lake Union to Lake Washington and back.

The Sifteo Cubes legacy will be to inspire product designers and startups to think outside of existing, well-defined product categories for interactive devices. They demonstrate the outcome of device/system design based explicitly on human capabilities and a what-if-the-world-could-be-different question. Sifteo sets an example of animating everyday objects (i.e. the block) with the magic of  interactivity to create new tools for play and thought—tools that are simultaneously out-of-this-world and at the same time nostalgically familiar.




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