Technoid Sifteo, a cubes puzzle games that have to touch & try

Wednesday, August 10th 2011. | Games News

Two years ago, graduate student David Merrill stood on a stage in Long Beach and promised to deliver the future of play.

“We’re on the cusp of this new generation of tools for interacting with digital media,” he said at a 2009 TED conference, “that are going to bring information into our world on our terms.” In his seven-minute talk, Merrill demonstrated the tiny interactive computers with LCD screens that he and partner Jeevan Kalanithi were developing at MIT. By touching the 1.5-inch cubes together, he could get them to do seemingly anything: add numbers, solve word puzzles, mix paint swatches and even make music.

The video of Merrill’s talk has since been viewed 1.1 million times. Now the cubes he and Kalanithi developed are about to enter production under the name Sifteo. The San Francisco startup will begin accepting orders today for its system on its website, The starter set, which includes three cubes, a charging station and USB radio that delivers games to the cubes via a nearby computer, begins shipping in September.

The idea is that the cubes will bring a new twist to a classic experience – sitting around a table with friends and family, playing games.

“Jeevan and I are just really excited about making ways for interacting with technology that are just more human, and more natural,” said Merrill, 32, in Sifteo’s Dogpatch offices. “The cool thing is that this is a time in history where all of a sudden it’s possible to do all kinds of new stuff.”

Merrill and Kalanithi have worked together for more than a decade. The first thing they co-founded was a band: Wheels, a cheeseball rock outfit in which Kalanithi played bass and wrote songs, and Merrill played guitar.

“We wanted to be the kind of band that would be able to open up for Huey Lewis at the county fair,” said Kalanithi, Sifteo’s deadpan CEO, who adorned the office’s front entrance with the fearsome skull of an allosaurus. “And we never really achieved that, but it was a good-enough, coherent vision.”

The founders are marketing Sifteo with the tagline “intelligent play,” devising games intended to be as stimulating mentally as chess or dominoes. A “creativity kit” released alongside the system will let users modify existing games and create new ones, allowing parents to translate their children’s homework into Sifteo games for their children.

“Dave and I have little babies, so we’re thinking about this stuff a lot,” said Kalanithi, 32, who met Merrill as an undergraduate at Stanford. “How can we capture play experiences that we can feel good about? If someone is playing chess, you’re not like, ‘That person is rotting their brain on chess!’ ”

The solution, Kalanithi said, is to let users get creative with the system. Average people will be able to feed vocabulary lists or math problems into games for Sifteo, and a software development kit will let third parties create more sophisticated games. Existing video games are designed primarily for consumption; Kalanithi wants to see Sifteo used for creation.

The question is how consumers will respond. While the audience for video games has grown in recent years, most of the growth has been fueled by smart phones and games played on Facebook. Selling dedicated game hardware has been a more difficult proposition; this week, after disappointing sales, Nintendo slashed the price of its new 3DS handheld console by nearly a third, to $169.

Meanwhile, the threat of a new contraction in the economy looms over Sifteo, whose starter set will retail for $149. Additional games, which can be purchased through a free, iTunes-like computer program, will sell for an average of $3 to $5.

Sifteo founders say they’re aware of the risks. “There’s a phrase: ‘Hardware is hard,’ ” Kalanithi said. “And it definitely is.” But he said he is confident Sifteo will be different enough to grab people’s interest. Many people who watched Merrill’s original TED talk have signed up to purchase the system when it becomes available. And game designers are intrigued at the possibilities afforded by the cubes.

Scott Kim, a renowned puzzle designer based in Burlingame, sought out the company’s founders after watching a Sifteo demo online. He’s now creating puzzle games for the system.

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