• 05.27.14

Why The Rubik’s Cube Fascinates Designers

Google’s Rubik’s Cube isn’t just a cool game: it’s an argument for the future of computing.

“The Rubik’s Cube is universally understood by everyone in the world,” says Richard The of Google’s Creative Lab in New York. And while a mechanical toy invented 40 years ago seems simple in theory, it can be tremendously complex to conquer. It holds a particular fascination for The and for Google, who together created the Chrome Cube Lab, a series of browser experiments riffing on the Rubik’s Cube.


Believe it or not, the project was born at Burning Man, when Google Chairman Eric Schmidt ran into the work of* Paul Hoffman of New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center. Hoffman had written extensively about the Rubik’s Cube, and convinced Schmidt that it was the perfect device to represent Google. “The Rubik’s Cube is many things. It is a toy, it is a puzzle, it is a math problem,” says The, “but it is also just really interesting as a design object.” He sees the Rubik’s Cube as emblematic of all things Google: the primary colors, the playfulness, the sense of complexity underlying something seemingly basic and easy to understand.

Anyone with a web browser was able to try and solve the Rubik’s Cube Google Doodle this past week; But Cube Lab is more than that; Cube Lab uses Google’s Chrome browser to push the Rubik’s Cube in totally new directions, encouraging people to modify their own versions, which could never be done before. One especially notable variant is called the 808 Cube, which uses the sounds of Roland’s primitive, but legendary, TR-808 drum machine in place of colors. You can essentially build your own 808 patterns with the cube by rotating the sounds to be where you want. It’s unlike any Rubik’s Cube that’s come before.

The physical Rubik’s Cube was designed as a teaching tool, to help people understand spatial relations. The Google Creative Lab team has managed to turn the physical, three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional browser tool without losing that element of teaching. The actual software is written using HTML5, which makes it very easy for anyone to modify it; it’s a simple matter of going into the code and changing a few things around. The offers color as an example: want to make one side pink? Just pop into the code and swap the color.

It’s been extremely difficult to make the cube easily manipulable online, as it has to be compatible with a wide range of computers and devices. And then there’s the inherent trickiness of turning a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional display and having its essence remain intact. But the Creative Lab team pulled it off.

The says that the idea of putting a three-dimensional object online had been in the Google Doodle team’s mind for a couple of years now, but the tools are only now ready. “You can almost do anything that you could do on other platforms on the web now,” he says. “We have a three-dimensional object that is basically HTML, which is incredible.” And that’s what Google wants to be known from the project. So much of Google’s present and future rely on HTML5: YouTube videos will be written in the language, as will games and all kinds of other applications (not to mention the browser-based Chromebook computers). The fact that simple web tools were used to create such a complex, interactive demo, and the fact that it can be played on almost any machine, from high-powered desktops to cheap touch-based tablets, is a perfect argument for Google in the power of the web.

* Correction: A representative for Hoffman tells us it was his work, not he himself, at Burning Man.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.