Switched On: A toy for the smartphone gaming generation

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The first thing worth noting about Sifteo Cubes -- which recently became available for pre-order at $149 for a starter pack of three that should start shipping this month -- is that they are not geometrically true to their name. Their square surfaces sit atop depths that are less than half their side length, so even stacking two Cubes won't produce three-dimensional symmetry. They are a little smaller than the game pieces from the much more limited and less expensive Scrabble Flash digital letter-arranging game that was a hit last holiday season.

The pieces fit comfortably between two fingers for easy gripping, flipping and rearranging, which you'll need to do a lot of in their various games. They are also a good size to substitute for many handheld playthings, reminding one of overstuffed Mahjongg tiles but also akin to shrunken toddlers' alphabet blocks or playing cards. The sides and back are otherwise nondescript except for a set of contacts on their rear used for charging. Sifteo Cubes are charged via their tray, which showcases them through a translucent plastic top with room for three more Cubes at $45 each. Different games derive different levels of benefit from having more than three tiles, but most work fine with the starter set.

The Cubes' color screens -- while only 1.5-inches across and having a 128 x 128-pixel resolution -- are really the key to the system's versatility. They are not touchscreens as your finger would take up a large portion of their surface, but do work as a single clickable button. Beneath those screens lie a host of sensors. Cubes can tell when they are touching each other's sides, tilted, flipped or shaken. By loading different games onto the Cubes, one can completely change how they are played with.

Games are sideloaded onto the Cubes from a PC or Mac using software that doubles as Sifteo's app store. This requires use of a small USB wireless adapter that can be docked in the charging box when not in use. In fact, one of the drawbacks of this initial release is that the PC or Mac must always be near the Cubes even once games have started since the Cubes have no speakers and the computer handles (perfectly synchronized) audio output. As is, the Cubes last for about three hours of play on a full charge.

The generally high-minded and conceptually simple games, which Sifteo says focus on "intelligent play," feature genres of strategy, puzzles, education and fast reflexes. That may sound a lot like many smartphone games, and indeed the prices and play value are similar, but the game mechanics are not. One basic difference, for example, is that Sifteo Cubes are played with on a table as opposed to on a device you keep in your hands. This makes for a potentially more openly social experience.

A couple of games, for example, rely on one continually rearranging the cubes to evolve a pathway that serves as a path toward a goal or away from an enemy. Another is an interesting twist on the Bejewled genre in which Cubes must be rearranged so that colored patterns of dots align. At this stage, some games are little more than mini-games or proofs of concept. A good example of this is 'Do the Sift,' a Bop-It-like game in which you're asked to manipulate certain Cubes while leaving others alone. The experience of its delightfully '80s retro graphics and sounds last for only three major rounds, which last only few minutes.

Many of the early apps have been written by puzzle fans for puzzle fans. One exception that encourages a more free-form experience is an app geared toward younger children called Oogor's Day, which creates a dynamic story as Cubes with different characters are manipulated. It's hard to say how in-depth Sifteo games can go, but one third-party developer soon plans to ship a promising music sequencer called LoopLoop. Even everyday customers can customize some existing games and exercises, though, with what Sifteo calls the Creativity Kit -- a simple, form-based approach to creating drills that should find favor with parents and teachers and may be applied in the future to other disciplines such as music.

There's really nothing else out there quite like Sifteo Cubes. The company characterizes the product as a cross between a toy and video games, but it is a refreshing breeze in the world of either, one that should pick up velocity as more third-party games hit the system by this holiday season. If Sifteo can inspire developers to exploit its platform, its unique mode of interaction gaming should be enough for it to steal sufficient attention from smartphone gaming.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.