One of the most basic ways that people learn to play is with blocks. From Lincoln Logs to Legos, all different sizes and shapes of blocks have been a part of play going back hundreds of years to when people just stacked rocks on top of one another. While there have been incremental improves on the basic concept of the block, little has come in the way of bringing thes basic objects into the technological age, at least until the Sifteo Cubes were released last year.
The Cubes were 1.7-inch, motion-aware, plastic blocks with clickable screens, that interacted with other Sifteo Cubes when nearby. They were a technological leap forward, but they were not with out their problems. A confusing interface, the necessity to be near a computer, and a limited software catalog were among a few of the system's standout issues. So, when the team at Sifteo went back to the drawing board for the second generation of the Cubes, they made it a priority to address those issues while updating the tech behind their "magic blocks" to create a much more polished final product. And thus, the latest Sifteo Cubes were born.
Right out of the box, it's clear that this generation of Sifteo Cubes is significantly different than their predecessors. There are a few key changes that are immediately noticeable, including the touch screen interface (which replaced the click screen), the inclusion of a USB base, and the four games that are included with the system. The touch screen came as part of feedback from users of the original Sifteo Cubes, and it enhances the overall quality of the system, making the devices feel like they are more in line with modern day technology than their predecessors.
The USB Base is a huge upgrade, since it is key to making the Cubes portable. The original Cubes streamed game data over WiFi from a nearby computer, and required a dongle in order to access and load new games. The USB Base is the central hub for the Cubes now, serving as the repository for game data and as the Cubes' speaker system. The four games that come packed with the system (Chroma Splash, Code Buddies, Code Cracker, and Word Caravan) help to demonstrate just what this generation of the Sifteo Cubes are capable of doing, offering up intelligent, tactile play anywhere and any time.
The original Sifteo Cubes introduced a new way to play games, one that centered around three (or more) separate screens interacting with each other. This generation of Cubes doesn't really change things when it comes to the core mechanics, but it improves on them by increasing the quality of the graphics, sound, and even the games themselves. The tech that is packed into each Cube has been upgraded, and can now more readily play better-looking, more complex games.
Sifteo have also made it easier for developers to begin creating their own games using their development kit, which should increase the overall number of games that become available as well – a noticeable shortfall for their predecessors. They have already lined up some amazing designers (Magic The Gathering's Richard Garfield), as well as some impressive licensed content (look out for a TMNT game soon), which brings hope that there's more interesting games on the horizon. And, when there are, Sifteo have made it easier to buy them, introducing a more streamlined shop, that will allow Cube owners an easier way to purchase new applications.
While much has changed, one of the downsides of the Sifteo Cubes is still the price. This generation of Cubes is priced better than the originals ($129.99 for the starter set versus $149.99), but it's still a pretty steep price point for blocks like these. There is clearly a lot of tech that is pumped into each individual block, but whether or not they are worth investing in is dependant on who in the family is likely to tinker with them the most, and whether or not they can care for a device like this. Additional blocks are going to run you $29.99, and, while they aren’t required by any of the games, they do enhance the experience of some, offering an additional screen (or screens) to display more game information on.
New electronic toys come out every day, but there's something clearly different about the Sifteo Cubes. While they aren't on the same level as other traditional gaming platforms, the Cubes stand out as a new way to interact with games. Touching, moving, and shaking the blocks is a lot different than pushing buttons to make an onscreen character move. The tactile interaction and response causes players to form different types of connections with the Cubes than the ones they form with a standard controller.
Unfortunately, the potential of a device like this rests squarely on the software that is offered for it. The games that are included with the device are a solid introduction to the unique features of the device, but if there isn't any follow through from the developers, these Cubes will likely just end up in the same box as all those other "toys." From a hardware perspective, this generation of the Sifteo Cubes vastly improves on the originals, and they are clearly a product with a lot of promise. The potential here is great, and are definitely something that parents, educators, and people that like playing outside the box should absolutely keep an eye on.