Sifteo's Cubes: Blocks with Brains

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Courtesy of Sifteo

The history of electronic playthings has always been pockmarked with disappointment. For every Milton Bradley Simon — a 1978 game so appealing that it stayed on the market for decades — there have been gaggles of "smart" toys that looked neat but never made it, usually because they were pricey and superficial. It's the toys and games that are powered entirely by kids' imaginations, like Legos, that usually have astonishing staying power.

For this reason, my instinctive reaction to new products that are as much gadget as toy tends to be skeptical. When MIT graduate student David Merrill showed off prototypes of intelligent game-playing blocks called Siftables at the TED conference in 2009, it was, like many TED demos, dazzling. But I held off on getting too enthusiastic until Siftables were real and ready to hit the market.

That day is nearly here. Siftables are now known as Cubes, and Sifteo, a company co-founded by Merrill, is taking pre-orders and planning to ship the first ones in September. It provided me with a $149 Sifteo Starter Pack of three Cubes for review. I'm happy to report that trying them for myself stoked my enthusiasm rather than dampened it.

Cubes still retain the qualities that made for a compelling TED demo two years ago. They're 1.5-in. plastic blocks with clickable color screens on their top and batteries inside. (They provide four hours of play on a charge and come with a recharging station.) More important, they seem to know the world around them. They can sense when you've placed two of them next to each other and know which edges are in proximity. They notice when you're tilting them and in which direction. They can tell when you've flipped them over.

Oh, and they can communicate wirelessly with a Windows PC or Mac, via a plastic doohickey you plug into the computer's USB port. In fact, the Cubes have to communicate with a computer. You need to be within a few feet of one running Sifteo's Siftrunner software, not just when you're downloading and installing new games but whenever you're using the Cubes. (You don't use the computer during gameplay, but it helps run the apps and provides the sound.) That makes Cubes an at-home plaything; the fact that you can fit them in your pocket is pretty much irrelevant.

Siftrunner has a built-in game store, which included 15 titles when I visited it. Games range from free to $5. (You pay for them in points, worth a penny apiece, which you buy in blocks of at least 500.) You download them to your computer, then install them wirelessly onto the Cubes.

All of Sifteo's 15 initial games and demos involve elements that are reminiscent of existing pastimes. Moon Marble, for instance, lets you slide a marble around, striking targets and dodging barriers. No Evil Monkeys is a classic sliding-piece puzzle. Word Play is Boggle-esque. Most of the games can be played solo but can — and should — be shared. A couple, including a meat-themed variation of Rummy called Smörgåsbord, are specifically meant for multiple players.

If these games were for a computer or smart phone — and they're all similar to ones available in those forms — they'd be pleasant but unexceptional. It's the fact that you're playing them on multiple Cubes that makes them unlike anything you've ever experienced. With No Evil Monkeys, for instance, you slide pieces from one cube onto another by holding them together and tilting them appropriately. It makes the game more challenging and fun, and adds an element of dexterity.

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