A Boy And His Blocks

I recently acquired a batch of Sifteo interactive blocks. They are new. Mysterious. I’m man enough to admit that I had no idea WTF was going on when I unwrapped these little electric treasures. All I know is that I like these little widgets. They bring me back to the halcyon days of my block-building youth and wreck it with a ferocious jolt of the NOW.

I’m not much for gadgets typically, but there’s something I really dig about the Cubes. I think it’s because it combines a number of interesting ideas (atypical user experience, PC-gadget connectivity, game platform, etc.) into a nifty little package. These are the harbingers of things to come. The future, tumbling into the present.

The Good Ole Days

Back in my day, toys didn’t multitask. They were purpose driven, and we liked it. Why? Because we didn’t know any better. Because we were simple folk, occupying simpler space in the space-time continuum. If you think about the expected user interaction with most toys from days of yore, it’s shockingly narrow: Hotwheels roll, Cabbage Patch Kids stare with quiet hate, and Furbies plot your demise. In most instances, the toy isn’t designed to offer depth of experience, it’s designed to serve a specific entertainment purpose during a small window in a child’s growth.

The toys that seem to really endure are those that offer a canvas. A platform for creativity. Legos are probably the best example of a toy designed to foster depth of interaction and hit a broad range of ages. Legos have been a part of my life since I learned not to put every object I came in contact with into my mouth, and before that I had access to Duplos (they couldn’t fit in my mouth). Legos scale with age. In the beginning, it was about putting one block on another. Later, it was about building castles or spaceships. I could lose myself in a box of Legos this very moment if afforded the opportunity.

The Games We Play

Sifteo Cubes strike me as a new type of canvas. It’s best to think of the Cubes as two components. The first is the physical component:

Each Sifteo cube packs a clickable, full color LCD display, a variety of motion sensors and a rechargeable battery into a sturdy 1.5 inch block.

Think of it as a tiny iPhone. I think the compelling part comes from the connectivity aspect. Sifteo Cubes have the ability to connect to your PC and detect their spacial relationship to one another. This lends itself to a number of pretty interesting mechanics, which the Cubes make good use of through a variety of games.

At first I thought it would feel pretty gimmicky. I had quiet fears of overdesign, but they’ve managed to keep things simple. The Cubes can be clicked, turned, flipped and shaken. These behaviors result in modifications to the LCD readout, which can then be used in association with neighboring Cubes to complete puzzles. A number of different brain teasers arise from these basic elements, and Sifteo runs an online store where you can download new games to the cube via a wireless USB plug.

The power comes from the combination of multiple types of reasoning in a single puzzle – spatial, logical, metaphysical (ok, not that one). It essentially guarantees that most users will experience some challenge, even if the actions themselves are relatively intuitive. More importantly, by keeping the basic actions simple and opening up a platform (online store) to make use of those elements, there is a real opportunity to continue innovating with the puzzles.

A Brave New Tomorrow

It’s likely that this is the beginning of a broader trend. We hear a lot about the household becoming a networked entity, with appendages reaching each appliance, device and monitor. Strangely, I don’t hear much about networked toys as a part of the conversation. I envision baby monitors doubling as chew toys delivering real-time data on the status of the child’s jaw strength. It’s not beyond contemplation that toys will be a meaningful part of the connected web, moving beyond their occupation as purely physical objects.

A good example of this is the recent enthusiasm shown for the Skylanders toys created by Activision. Much like Sifteo Cubes, Skylanders have a physical component (miniatures) and a connected component (each figurine acts as a key to an online world populated by the Skylanders). It’s been all the rage, with some figurines fetching into the hundreds of dollars on short supply. The popularity of these critters is evidence of the viability of the idea, and I think it’s worth betting on the longevity of the trend.

The connectivity allows each Cube or toy to move beyond the limitations of the physical hardware to incorporate the breadth of software. This permits a continuous reinvention of the product, creating far deeper engagement and satisfaction. One need look no further than the iPhone, which has improved largely in an iterative fashion since first being released unto the world. Despite the relative stability of the hardware, the app environment continues to reinvent and reinvigorate the device. This is the future for all manner of things, and it’s not surprising that toys are on the vanguard.

JM: Cool, I want to play! Or more precisely, I think this would make a nice gift for my daughter. [Opens tab to Amazon, drops into cart, pauses over $149 price for 3 cubes]. Hmmm, the reviews say there aren’t many apps for it. I wonder what their time-to-closet quotient is? Interestingly, Amazon’s prescient recommendation engine is now suggesting I buy a Sphero, a Da Vinci Catapult Kit, and a Rover App-Controlled Spy Tank.

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