At first, Sifteo seems like some kind of IQ test from the future: a set of three high-tech cubes, each a small computer with a color screen, each knowing when it is pressed, tilted, turned over, turned around, or near another cube. All together providing an apparently endless variety of surprisingly deep puzzles and investigations of the universe of sound and reason. And then you realize it’s a more of an IQ toy than an IQ test, inviting you and your children to hours of, as the manufacturers describe it, “intelligent play.”

Sifteo is a computer peripheral that communicates via a “dongle” (a small device that plugs into the USB port). To begin play, you must first download an application called “Siftrunner.” Through this software, you connect to the Sifteo cubes, your own personal library of Sifteo games and activities, and an online collection of yet more games that are available for a most modest fee (the Sifteo itself is somewhat of a significant investment, and you’ll probably rationalize yourself into purchasing at least one more $50 Sifteo cube).

Sifteo is a frame-breaking toy. Even though you need your computer nearby, the players are interacting solely through the manipulation of the three (or more) Sifteo cubes. When a game is selected, it is downloaded to the cubes. The computer provides the sound effects – which results in a richly immersive soundscape for each game.

Currently, there are 19 different activities available from the Sifteo store. Some are free. Several are included with your initial purchase. Though the majority of Sifteo activities are best played as a solitaire, many can be played with more than one player.

Peano’s Vault is one of the included games. It is more of an exercise than a game, offering a collection of mathematical puzzles where players arrange cubes to equal a target number. Each cube displays a number. Surrounding that number are different arithmetic operators (plus, minus, multiply, divide). By connecting the cubes in the correct order to the correct operator, you arrive at the correct solution. The game demonstrates the unique benefit of the Sifteo device – rearranging cubes provides a new and inviting way for interacting with number puzzles. Even with three cubes, the puzzles can get deeply challenging. With four, even moreso. Five or six and you border on merry mathematical masochism.

Chroma Shuffle (available for 300 points) exemplifies the more recreational uses of Sifteo with a series of visual logic puzzles. Each cube displays a collection of dots of different shape and color. By positioning two cubes next to each other, dots that are adjacent and the same color/shape disappear. By tilting a cube that has lost some of its dots, you can rearrange them. There are a variety of puzzles, most of which have something to do with making all the dots disappear. Again, the opportunity for challenge (this time, visual and logical) can get quite profound as you progress through the games. (Chroma Lite comes free with your set. Playing with it for a half-hour or so should be ample evidence of why you should consider purchasing Chroma Shuffle.)

Planet of Tune (a 300 point investment) transforms the Sifteo cubes into a tool for exploring and composing music. Each cube becomes one of 14 different instruments. Standing the cubes on edge makes each instrument continuously play. In this way, by selecting which cube to stand up and which to lay down, you can actually play your cubes, creating your own musical performance. Shaking a cube makes the instrument play according to whatever tempo you create. You can “record” each instrument so that the sound you make keeps repeating.

And on and on, each activity demonstrating a sometimes significantly different way of interacting with the cubes, and each another invitation to use your mind, senses and fingers.

All the activities exercise the mind. The games center on logic, and the activities, like Peano’s Vault, focus on exercising knowledge. Though the games are engaging and entertaining (like good puzzles), currently the most significant contribution of Sifteo is educational – encouraging thinking and learning. The arithmetic and linguistic exercises demonstrate how the simple act of shifting cubes around adds a new and playful dimension to what in other manifestations is dull and routine. Sifteo even includes two activities that the user/player can edit to focus on particular learning objectives.

For players who may not appreciate the fast and near-chaotic pace of the majority of arcade-like computer games, Sifteo is a welcome alternative. It provides a rich and comparatively gentle invitation to electronic gaming that is removed (by up to 20 feet) from the computer. For parents and teachers who want to encourage children to use their minds and exercise their creative and intellectual skills, Sifteo offers ample and entertaining opportunities.

In sum, Sifteo proves to be an innovative interface to computer technology, inviting mind and fingers to many hours of deep, intelligent, and often major fun.

Sifteo was originally developed at the MIT Media Lab by Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi and introduced to the world in Dave’s 2009 TED talk.

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