March 3, 2021

State of the Art: Tiny Screens Bearing Tiny Delights

That’s because nobody’s ever seen anything like them.

Sifteo is a new “gaming platform,” which is an icky tech industry term for what they really are: a kick in the imagination. If the business brains behind Sifteo could only keep up with the engineering end, the gamers of the world would be trembling in their boots.

Sifteo tiles ($150) are white plastic blocks, 1.5 inches square and about a half-inch tall. Each has a color screen on the top.

The breakthrough idea, dreamed up by a pair of M.I.T. students, has three parts. First, the cubes communicate with one another wirelessly; they know when they’re next to one another, and which side is against which side. (They don’t have to be touching; they can just be close.)

Second, they have very sensitive tilt sensors. Third, the top screen is clickable.

These three simple ideas, in combination, permit a huge range of games. In one, you guide a cartoon critter along a path by tipping his cube so that he slides onto the next one. In another, you unscramble words by sliding the tiles into the right order on the table. In another, you can click a screen to advance to the next game level.

In many games, you can get back to the main menu by flipping the cubes upside down and back up again. Sometimes you reset or shuffle a game by shaking the cubes in the air.

It works. The communication between cubes, the animation and the gravity simulations (when you tilt cubes) are smooth and seamless, creating a perfect illusion.

The company asserts that this is more than a new game paradigm. They say it’s a healthy, essential cultural shift. It’s a return, they tell us, to the simpler times when play meant manipulating things — blocks, checkers, Legos — with your fingers on a table. A return to the pleasures of interactive, face-to-face, tabletop game playing — a retreat from the iPod Touch syndrome where everybody’s face is bent down toward a different, isolating screen.

Sifteo may well be right about that. But its amazing little cubes must first mount three obstacles that loom before it like the Pyramids.

First — and this is the big one — the cubes don’t work without a computer nearby. In addition to three Sifteo cubes and a charger (which has slots for six cubes), the set comes with a tiny white transmitter nubbin that you are supposed to insert into the USB jack of a Mac or PC. Then you download a program called SiftRunner.

SiftRunner lets you shop the online catalog of games, download them to your computer, read their instructions and transfer them to the cubes (wirelessly, courtesy of that transmitter).

Once you’ve sent the games from your computer to the cubes, which can take about a minute, you click a Play button on your computer’s screen. At this point, the computer supplies both the computing horsepower and the music and sound effects, which add a great deal to the experience.

That’s a clever arrangement, but the computer requirement puts a huge damper on the portability of Sifteo. These tiny, pocketable, sophisticated tiles, with their four-hour battery life, would be the world’s greatest back-seat-of-the-car activity. They’d be the perfect waiting games: waiting rooms, waiting in line, waiting for dinner.

But since you can’t use them at all without a computer a few feet away, they’re impractical as pocketable entertainment.

The company is well aware that the computer requirement is keeping its Sifteo cubes grounded. It says that it’s exploring all kinds of solutions — maybe letting a phone or tablet serve as the computer, for example.

At the least, you should be able to load the cubes up with one favorite game and then leave the laptop behind. But for now, even that’s impossible; the computer must always be on and within range. And don’t lose that transmitter, either; it’s about the size of a hydrogen atom.

The second huge obstacle is the price: $150 is awfully steep for three cubes.


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