Connect, flip, shake, press — Sifteo Cubes are small wireless blocks that use sensors and graphics to interact with one another (and a computer) for a unique gaming experience. Think of them as the 21st century offspring of legos and dominos.
The technology, which spun out of the MIT Media Lab, has been on the market for less than a year — but after seeing a demo of the nascent product back in 2008, local technologist Kurt Roots had an aha.
These cubes would be exceptionally suited for educational purposes, particularly with developmentally disabled kids.
Roots’ interest in this field is not entirely coincidental. He has a brother with a rare autistic disorder and his wife, Dr. Monika Heller, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Additionally, Roots studied machine learning and data mining while attending graduate school at Iowa State University before spending five years programming for Oracle, so he had plenty of experience on the technical side.
The Sifteo Cubes represented an opportunity for him to combine his passions and make an impact. He now develops games for the platform under the banner of his startup company CogCubed, which launched last November.
“Having the cubes be so tangible and something you can pick up makes it more engaging,” says Roots, explaining the product’s superiority as an educational tool in the health care realm. “It also allows them to physically manipulate the device, which in terms of tracking capabilities, is way more valuable.”
In addition to the expertise of Dr. Heller, Roots has brought aboard as an adviser Dr. Jonathan Jensen, Director of the Residency Training and Education Program in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. They’re also running clinical trials to test and tweak the efficacy of his games. Thus far, CogCubed has only title (called “Groundskeeper”) available for download, but they plan to have a full suite of games available within a few months.
Because Sifteo Cubes, which retail for about $130, haven’t been widely adopted on a consumer level, and also because Sifteo doesn’t allow third-party developers to profit from app downloads, Roots is mainly targeting health care institutions, where clinicians can use and charge for CogCubed games while also utilizing them as a diagnostic tool.
Certainly there have been challenges involved with creating games for such a new and unknown platform. Roots says he often has to sell customers on the product itself in addition to his games, and jokes that he should be receiving a cut of Sifteo’s profits. He also speaks of a the steep learning curve for developing, and voices some frustration over the fact that Sifteo is already on the verge of releasing the next version of their hardware, which amazingly will not be backward compatible.
Nevertheless, CogCubed has dug in and is ready to add another dimension to educational gaming, with the hopes that thinking outside the box will yield new avenues in an area that is near and dear to the company’s creators.