Sifteo Siftables – So Near, So Far

A couple of months ago, my user experience researcher daughter, Liz Shelly, sent me an email asking if I’d see the Sifteo Siftables.  She was walking to lunch in the Financial District of San Francisco and came across some Sifteo employees demoing the product on the sidewalk.

When I went to the Sifteo website, I realized I’d seen the TED video of David Merrill demoing his siftables last year.  I had made a note to find the toys when they came out. On Wednesday I came across an ad for them and immediately ordered them from Amazon. They arrived Friday and I’ve been tinkering with them ever since.

The out of box experience is unremarkable.  However, just picking up one of the Sifteo cubes is just so tactile and cool. To imagine how much of a complete computer is in this little square – CPU, Memory, wireless network, video display, and sensors.  The minute I saw the website, I got excited thinking about how I could use this as a basis for a class project in my upcoming UW MBA class on Designing for Demand.

The cube has everything to be at the forefront of user experiences in three dimensional tactile environments, rather than sitting in front of a glass screen.  Since it is simpler than a smart phone, it might be easier to work with for business students new to design.

Alas, I am too early in the product cycle for what I want to do with the Sifteo cubes.  The current design center for the cubes is for children as advertised.  I can imagine that they would be a lot of fun and quite engaging for that age group.  Just not so much for what I hoped to do with them.

The “product” (it is just so hard to think of these as a product as they are such a cute and cuddly toy) comes out of the box and everything went as advertised with hooking into my computer.  I created an account on the web and downloaded the Siftrunner software.

I loved the pictorial way that the software figures out which cube is which – you just press the picture on the cube that matches the image on the screen.

I downloaded the Get Started game and was in for my first surprise – in order to play with the blocks you need to be within wireless range of the computer.  The sound comes out of the computer, not out of the Sifteo cubes.  Darn.  I was really hoping I could carry the cubes around in my pocket and be the first “kid” on my block to pull the cubes out and play a game in front of my colleagues.  Not without a laptop.  Bummer.  I can’t wait for the iPhone/iPad interface (I can only hope).

Get Started Game

The Get Started game does a great job of showing you all of the capabilities of the cube – from the push button controlling of the action, to docking of the cubes together, to showing how the position in 3 space affects game play. So much capability. The following photo is the setup for using the tilt function of the cubes to get the hat back on the head:

Get Started

I then downloaded another game – Planet of Tune – that is about making generative music.

Planet of Tune

With each game it is weird to start the game play by clicking PLAY in the web browser. Several of the games then have some weird gyration you have to go through to arrange the blocks to get the game actually started.  It probably helps to be a child.  For me, I just keep rearranging the blocks through trial and error and then something finally happens. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what it is that gets things started.

Planet Tune Startup

Planet of Tune is kind of cool as it has a record function so that you can replay the generative music you create.  However, it is still weird to have the music coming from my computer speakers (displaced away from where I’m playing).  The cognitive dissonance of having the blocks in one place and the sound coming from somewhere else is hard to get used to.  On a laptop, the tinny sounding speakers make it worse.  I suppose I could use headphones but that makes me even more connected to the computer.

The business model for Sifteo is clear – the games store.  At least you have some point credits when you get started so you don’t have to spend real money to get a game to get a sense of what the cubes can do.

The most disappointing part of the Sifteo system is that you can customize very little.  As a non-programmer all you can do is display different text or numbers on some of the sorting puzzles.

Sifteo Creativity Kit

Old Man Shaking his head "Nope!"

In order to do anything else you have to download the developers kit and start programming away in C# and .NET.  Unfortunately, those are not capabilities I possess any more.  I was hoping there was some form of intermediate language or tool. I really would like to see their API but have not figured out how to get that out of the download or on the website.

But the cubes are just so cool. I just want to carry them in my pocket and click them together like the stress relieving Chinese Exercise balls.

Lori Emerson on her blog provides a great review on using the Sifteo cubes in a humanities classroom.  From my recent research into digital humanities, I wanted to implement some version of the Zero Count Stitching generative poetry that John Cayley developed.

Not being able to customize the Sifteo Cubes, I decided to track back David Merrill and his research work at MIT. There are more than enough publications here to keep me busy for the rest of the weekend that I’d allocated to playing with the cubes.  My favorite is “Make a Riddle and Telestory: Designing Children’s Applications for the Siftable Platform.”  As I poke around some more, I see that David was involved with Alex Pentland and his sociometer research.  I am a big fan of Pentland’s book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World.  I’ve been waiting to try out a sociometer for several years.

Oh well, back to the Sifteo Cubes for some more serious play.

This entry was posted in Human Centered Design, Software Development, Transactive Content, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

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