Sifteo Debuts Updated Gaming Cubes, Unshackles Them From the Computer

Sifteo, an innovative hardware startup, last year released Sifteo Cubes, a tool for experimental play that features a number of electronic squares with built in displays and motion/proximity sensors. This year, the company is delivering a significant update to its product just in time for the holiday shopping season, one that addresses a lot of the original Sifteo’s major shortcomings, and sets the stage for considerable potential ecosystem growth around the unique gadgets.

First, Sifteo’s version two product will finally free itself from the requirement of having a computer nearby. Originally, they had to be tethered to a PC, which handled the heavy lifting in terms of processing power in order to make sure the Cubes themselves could remain small, light, battery efficient and ideal for tactile, flexible play. Now, however, those duties are handled by a new standalone base, which is roughly the size of two Sifteo Cubes side by side, and which runs on two AAA batteries (in addition to the one required for each individual Cube). The base allows for far greater portability for the Sifteo Cubes, something which co-founder and president Dave Merrill explained in an interview was one of the company’s key goals from the start.

“Right as we launched the first-gen system, we were already getting ideas about how to make it even better,” he said in an interview. “Some of that came from observing users and talking to them, but a lot of it also just came from looking back to our guiding vision for the product, and thinking about what that would imply for how we could make it even better. And the key thing we’re inspired by are classic games and classic tabletop play, but making it interactive, so thinking about [those kinds of games] we realized that the number one thing we could do with Sifteo Cubes to bring it closer to that experience would be to make it portable.”

In addition to being more portable, Sifteo is now more powerful, too, with higher resolution screens and better graphics capabilities, allowing for the possibility of more detailed games, Alongside the version two release, Sifteo is also introducing a new developer SDK for release October 1, which will provide a much-improved way for third-party game designers and creators to bring their visions to life on Sifteo Cubes. In-house, Sifteo has also put a lot of energy and focus into its identity as a game development studio, Merrill says, and two upcoming titles, including one created in partnership with Nickelodeon using Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IP, and one from Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield, promise to really show off what the updated product is capable of.

While the new generation Cubes won’t be compatible with previous versions, something Merrill said just isn’t possible given the changes in the underlying tech, now Sifteo supports up to 12 addition cubes (nine more than are included in the basic starter pack), opening up possibilities for even more varied and in-depth experiences.

Still, probably the most significant advance with this product is the development of the base, which Merrill says is actually a pretty spectacular feat of engineering, since it can output impressive graphics and smooth gaming performance using relatively little power and hardware specs far below your average Android device, for instance. In fact, the base itself could provide another set of possibilities for Sifteo altogether, beyond its consumer-facing products.

“Our team has made this amazing little app runtime that runs on the base, even though that hardware is not really similar to what you’d see on an iPhone or Android phone in terms of its amount of computational cycles or battery consumption, it’s a pretty thrifty little system,” he said. “So as a side product of creating this new game system, we’ve kind of ended up with this app engine for the internet of things. I think going forward in the future, you’re going to see a lot of lower computational horsepower devices, and if they can run apps, that’s going to increase their capabilities.”

Already, Merrill says that Sifteo has had some companies approach them and express interest in this new aspect of its tech, since it’s something embedded device makers are increasingly thinking about. But at this stage, he says that it’s still too early to tell whether developing that tech for use by others might be something Sifteo devotes significant resources to.

Sifteo has already had considerable success with its first-generation product, according to Merrill, though he declined to share specific numbers around sales from the first year of availability. Though it’s a unique product, it still faces significant competition from devices like the iPad, which can provide similar experiences, albeit constrained to a single physical screen. Merrill says that while he doesn’t believe anyone will choose between an iPad and Sifteo (they are much more likely to coexist in homes, he argues), he also thinks that while an iPad developer could emulate or virtualize experiences like those Sifteo provides, they can’t quite replicate its tactile nature and experimental play, which is the main appeal of Sifteo Cubes among users. Another potential competitor is the Sphero remote-controlled ball for iOS devices, but again, though both operate in the experimental play market, their approaches are radically different, making them unlikely to conflict directly in terms of user interest.

The new Cubes will be on store shelves in November, and are available for pre-order now from retailers including Amazon.com, Toys R Us and Sifteo’s own website. A starter pack with the base and three cubes costs $129.99, and add-on cubes each cost $29.99.

 

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