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.

Scrabble Flash

Scrabble Flash is an electronic word-making game. It’s a good word game. It’s fun, absorbing, challenging. There are three different games, and each has one variation. In the first game, you try to make as many words as possible in the given time (75 seconds – with an extra 5 seconds added to the clock for every 5-letter word solved). In the second game, you have to use all the tiles (4 or 5 depending on how many you start with) to make one word; and, as soon as you do, you get your next set of letters, and so on. In the last, you play competitively, passing the tiles to another player as soon as you have succeeded in spelling a word using all the tiles. That player must accomplish the goal in ever diminishing time. If the timer expires, you’re out for that round.

The variation: you can use 4 or 5 tiles. If you use 4 tiles in the first game, you can spell 2-, 3, or 4 letter words. In the other games, all the words have 4 letters. If you use all 5 tiles, words have to be 3, 4 or 5 letters, and the other games require your using all 5 tiles. Whether you elect to use 4 or all 5 tiles, the games are equally challenging and inviting.

Whenever you finish a game (the time has run out), the tiles inform you how many words you were able to complete, and how many words you could have completed if you only thought harder and moved the tiles faster. This is really all the information you need to keep your ego in check. As you might guess, the game uses the official Scrabble dictionary. As you might conclude, many of the words you’ll need to know are, well, shall we say “obscure”?

Major Fun AwardScrabble Flash is not just an electronic word-making game. You could download one of those to play on your iPod/pad/phone or computer. It’s the tiles, the 5, separate tiles, and the feel of them, and the challenge of moving them and lining them up as quickly as quick can be that makes Scrabble Flash as uniquely, and majorly fun as it turns out to be – no matter which variation you play, regardless of whether you’re playing by yourself or with friends or family.

If you’re over 10, it will take you a while to get over the sheer wonder of the technology you’re playing with. It’s truly amazing to discover how this thing works – how the tiles can function individually and collectively, how it “knows” how many letters you’re playing with, how the tiles communicate with each other. If you’re under 10, you’ll just enjoy playing the games, taking, as is your age-related privilege, the technology completely for granted.

You get 5 tiles and a storage case. The tiles are like Siftables – they are each battery-powered, they each have an LCD screen and a computer chip, and they “communicate” with each other via infrared transmitter/receivers housed in each tile. The batteries (watch-like), are included, bless them.

The whole package is so convenient, the little case so elegantly portable, the components so accountably few, that you’ll be taking the game with you pretty much everywhere. All of these factors also make it perfect for a library games collection, for a school library collection, for your own personal collection, to play at home, to play at restaurants, and, whenever possible, to flaunt shamelessly.

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