Sifteo Cubes have arrived! Long hyped as the most exciting new development in table-top entertainment, the cubes -- part Lego, part video game, part board game -- started shipping to American and Canadian customers today. I had a chance to futz around with them, and my ruling is this: They’re even better than I imagined.
Sifteo Cubes are a triumph of good interface design.
Let me preface that by saying that I’m no hardcore gamer. My idea of gaming is getting halfway through the Sunday crossword puzzle. But that’s exactly what makes Sifteo Cubes great. They pioneer something the company calls “Intelligent Play,” which is a vaguely elevated term for a toy that manages to be both fun and smart. They’re video games for people who hate video games. (Though I reckon people who like video games would enjoy them, too.) “We're not trying to compete with Nintendo, Microsoft, EA and others,” Sifteo spokesman Paul Doherty tells Co.Design. “We're trying to create games that promote learning, spatial reasoning and truly interactive play.”
What they don’t say, but they should, is that Sifteo Cubes also represent a triumph of good interface design. The cubes are 1.5-inch, motion-aware blocks with full-color screens that wirelessly connect to a computer and can be shaken, tilted, rotated, and clicked to play a vast array of games. Some of the games are fairly mindless and whimsical. In Moon Marble, you slant and rearrange the blocks to get a moon to gulp up stars (and avoid evil rats). Others are full-on brain teasers. Word Play has you reshuffling the blocks to spell as many words as possible with a given letter set while the clock ticks. No Evil Monkeys has you unscrambling blocks within the blocks to create images of monkeys, which seems easy, but actually requires the spatial abilities of a surgeon. (I was depressingly bad at this. There goes my dream of being a doctor when I grow up, sigh.)
The graphics are pretty basic here -- they aren’t going to win any beauty contests. But when we say “good design” we aren’t talking about graphics; we’re talking about the complete user interface. Think about it: Sifteo has you operating on multiple planes -- reading the cubes, shifting them, jostling them, in effect, using them as both 3-D building blocks and 2-D video games -- and that sounds totally complicated and counterintuitive, except that playing with them actually feels as natural as walking.
They operate on many planes, but playing with them feels natural.
That’s partly because Sifteo tapped New Deal Design to design the hell out of them -- to make them light, small, and tactile. (Read our earlier story for more.) That’s also because the cubes are, at their core, a wildly clever concept. Usually, when we think of interface design, we think about making a gadget easier to use by hiding its computational logic. Sifteo’s interface does the exact opposite: It externalizes that process. It takes user commands and turns them into real, live jolts and tilts and clicks, which give tangible form to something we experience every day but never actually see. Call it a victory for inside-out interface design.