Quick! What was the last game you played with your hands? For many of us, it was too long ago to remember. These days, gaming tends to happen on mobile devices, which is all well and good, until you talk to Dave Merrill, the co-founder of much-hyped San Francisco gaming startup Sifteo. Merrill and his team believe that learning happens through hands-on play. "We grow up in the physical world," he says. "It’s how we play, and how we learn."
Sifteo is part of a growing group of researchers and gamers who want to bring the visceral pleasure of tabletop games like checkers and dominoes to the digital world. Last year, the team brought Sifteo Cubes to market, introducing a tangible gaming system that became a blockbuster and topped dozens of the year’s "Best Of" lists (Fast Company named Sifteo one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies). Today, the company announced their much-anticipated second generation of cubes, updating their stellar system with increased functionality and new games designed by legendary designers like Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic the Gathering.
Originally developed in MIT’s Media Lab, each 1.7-inch-square Sifteo Cube is equipped with a Bluetooth transmitter, accelerometer, and color touch screen. Think of them as building blocks with iPhone-level functionality. Games are played by shaking, tapping, and arranging the lightweight cubes—a type of physical learning Sifteo calls "intelligent play." The company’s studio of 10 designers and developers is led by the puzzle expert Scott Kim, and advised by notables like video game researcher Constance Steinkuehler, who is an official adviser to the White House on games and technology.
Sifteo’s new generation of Cubes make good on some of the promises of the first generation. Merrill says the team considered making big design changes, including changing the cubic shape. "But we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do with this object," he explains, so they stuck to tweaking the original product. For example, the first-gen cubes needed to tether to a nearby computer. The new version are fully portable, and contain enhanced processing capabilities that decrease loading times. A compact new base provides the engine for running the games, allowing you to throw the cubes in their soft carrying bag and go. Unfortunately, the new cubes aren’t backwards compatible—so you won’t be able to use your old and new cubes together. The good news? Sifteo is offering customers who own the first gen cubes a special loyalty discount, in the form of a $50 voucher (find out more on their website). Once you’ve upgraded, though, it will be possible to play games with up to 12 cubes at once. The company plans to sell the new model both in packs and as singles.
Given the company’s mission of reinventing play, it’s no surprise that the new release focuses heavily on the games themselves. The team spent several months getting feedback from their users, and found much evidence to back up their claims about a link between physical play and learning. What they didn’t find, however, was an obvious "typical" user. Elementary school teachers use Cubes in the classroom, but they’re also well-loved by kids, and adults looking for some brain exercise. To appeal to the broad range of users, Sifteo has tapped a range of guest designers to develop the new generation’s games—among them, Nickelodeon and Richard Garfield, whose game will be released in 2013. The new Cubes come with four pre-loaded, ranging from a Zelda-inspired adventure game to a simple math game. "We always try to make it distinct from learning," explains Merrill. But users will find there’s no clear line between play and learning. "It engages your hands and mind in a very unusual way."
Today’s announcement tells us a lot about where Sifteo is heading as a company, too. The new Cubes are being released with a new software development kit, which will allow developers and tinkerers to design their own games. Putting their clean API and mechanical toolkit into the hands of amateurs is a deft move on the part of Sifteo, who surely know that devoted gamers tend to make excellent game designers—not to mention excellent word-of-mouth advertising. Merrill says that he believes gaming is entering a new, more accessible era. "Gamers are now turning 30," he says. "They’re raising families, and those two worlds are coming together." With an open API, Sifteo will invite gamers of both generations to participate—both in the playing, and in the making.
The Cubes will begin shipping in November, and will run at $130 for a full set and $30 for a single.