Upon opening the cubes, it is good to charge them. A docking station is provided that fits up to six cubes, which slide in and nicely click into place. Once charged, the cubes can be connected to a Mac or PC via a small wireless USB link. I put mine into the side slot under my keyboard where it fits perfectly and unobtrusively. Once the cubes are powered on, they are automatically and instantly recognized by the Siftrunner desktop software, which is the command center for the platform. Installing games onto the cubes through Siftrunner takes approximately one minute. I am wondering how many games the cubes can hold on-board at a single time.
When Siftrunner is launched for the first time, a playful and cute start-up guide is presented to take users through the steps that I just described. Also, a getting started app is available for the cubes, which I highly recommend. Monotonous narrator aside, the the getting started app is an excellent introduction to the basic interactions that users can have with the cubes. These include:
- flip: turn the cube upside down, so its screen faces the table
- neighbor: place the side of a cube flush with the side of another cube
- press: push down on the cube’s screen until it clicks
- tilt: lift up one side of the cube, so it is positioned at an angle
- shake: move the cube back and forth rapidly
As a game designer, learning about these interactions excited me. I can see many opportunities for robust tangible interactions that can be made using the cubes. Also, the various interactions can be mixed and matched, and executed with multiple cubes in tandem, thus leading to a wide array of possibilities.
I have a few concerns about the cubes’ hardware in general and specific to the cubes that I received, which I will briefly describe here.
Out of the box, my cubes seemed either to be used, as if Sifteo rounded up all of the test cubes that were laying around the office and mailed them out to Early Access participants, or manufactured with little quality assurance. They were missing the transparent screen peels that universally accompany packaged electronics and had the hairline screen scratches, frame dents, ticks, and chips, and worn charging connectors that typically accompany one year or older mobile devices.
Speaking of mobile devices, one of the biggest misconceptions that I think people will have is that this is a mobile gaming platform. I will make it clear now that the cubes absolutely are not mobile devices. Users would struggle to take them to school, the park, or on the bus. The cubes just happen to be small and therefore give the appearance that they are mobile. But in reality, they are permanently tethered to a computer in order to operate. Hence, it is better to think of them as a home console, such as the Wii or Xbox 360, that happens to take on a small, distributed form factor.
Continuing, I had some problems with clicking on the face of the cubes. For one, the screen click is not very responsive and often takes multiple tries to work. Also, I saw the classic concentric wave of LCD pixels flowing outward from my touch point, which makes me very wary of pressing on the screen. People are likely to be averse to clicking on the screen and thus I would design that feature out of my games.
Another issue with the screen involves viewing angles. I noticed that the cubes have a very clear right-side up, because the backlighting looks different in this one orientation than when the cubes are rotated any other way. This is a negative, because the the games played with the cubes emphasize constant motion and manipulation, such that the cubes are rarely right-side up. Moreover, I found the viewing angle of the cubes difficult. Like any LCD screen, the cubes will get very dark or faint when the viewing angle is not ideal. Faintness occurs when I play with the cubes on my desk, which has me viewing them at approximately a 45 degree angle. It seems that the cubes were designed to be viewed at precisely a straight-down 90 degree angle, which I can only imagine is going to lead players to adopt quite unergonomic contortions during play.
Lastly, I am concerned about the audio system for the cubes. Basically, all audio for games comes from the computer, rather than the cubes themselves. While this is no problem for ambient music that accompanies games (like listening to music from speakers), I believe that it will degrade the user experience in games that rely on sounds for vital story and feedback elements. The audio issue is improved with the use of headphones, but then again, that ensures a single-player experience and further tethers one to a computer when using the cubes. On a side note, I noticed that the 128x128 pixel screen that the cubes use is quite similar to that of my Tamagotchi, a series of devices that have had on-board audio for about 15 years.
A few additional hardware concerns include:
- both the cubes and my computer tend to get warm after just a few minutes of play
- my cubes seem to have different battery lives, although it is hard to keep track of whether this is being caused by using some more than others
- in some games, it seems that only one or two cubes dominate use, which is a trap to avoid in designing for a system that allows for three to six objects
- starting/stopping games requires one to return to the desktop to click on-screen buttons, which makes for a very seam-filled experience that lacks natural flow in and out of gameplay
At present, my favorite game on the cubes is Chroma Shuffle. It is a Bejeweled-esque puzzle game about matching shapes and colors in order to clear them from the board and start anew. In much more compelling fashion than desktop counterparts, it makes use of the various interactions available to the cubes. For instance, one can tilt a cube to slide the tiles into different arrangements or connect multiple cubes at once to clear tiles from multiple places simultaneously. Chroma Shuffle also has different game modes (puzzle, timed, untimed) and a cool 80’s soundtrack, reminiscent of Faltermeyer’s Axel F.
While Chroma Shuffle is a great start at demonstrating the kinds of experiences that are possible with the cubes, not much else is available at the moment. The only other fully-formed apps available to date are Oogor’s Day, an interactive story, Booker the Penguin, a maze escape game, and Mount Brainiac, a letter and number learning game. There are also the Sifteo Labs projects, which are essentially partially formed concepts rather than full-fledged products. These are interesting, but do not provide much beyond a few minutes of experimentation.
Prior to launch, it seems that Sifteo would be wise to release additional titles that can demonstrate the value of the cubes and hook in the necessary audience to sustain the platform. Additionally, I believe that the SDK for third-party developers is going to be critical to the success of the cubes. As iOS has shown, external sources are capable of generating many more useful and valuable applications than could ever be developed by an internal team, however large it might be. Likewise, the app store model of distribution has proved motivating for developers, while allowing the parent company to focus on hardware improvements, rather than software. If Sifteo can inspire developer interest in its platform, and provide the necessary tools and incentives, it should see a rich explosion of useful apps.
Overall, I still see a lot of potential for meaningful interactions with the Sifteo cubes. I do have some hardware concerns, some of which seem fixable, and some of which do not, prior to the commercial launch later this year. Other than Chroma Shuffle, the software is lacking right now, though this is a common phenomenon amongst newly launched platforms. The SDK should do wonders to fill out the software library for the cubes, but it is unclear when exactly it will be available to developers. In the meantime, I will continue to experiment with and enjoy the cubes, while looking forward to opportunities to design experiences for them.