Sifteo Makes Smart Blocks for Gaming and Education

An MIT Media Lab concept becomes a commercial product

2 min read

Wii-motes, Kinects, and multi-touch screens--the number of ways that gamers can control their games has certainly grown. Now, a set of smart blocks created by San Francisco start-up Sifteo, Inc., offers another way to play: by hand-arranging physical tiles, each with its own video display.

Each 4.3 by 4.3 by 1.9 centimeter block weighs a mere 35 grams, but packs in a 3-axis accelerometer, a 2.4 gigahertz radio receiver and transmitter, a full-color 128 by 128 pixel LCD, an ARM micro-controller, and a Lithium-ion polymer rechargeable battery.

Sifteo co-founder Jeevan Kalanithi chatted with IEEE Spectrum at last month's 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, where the company sold its first batch of blocks as part of its Early Access program. These first sets sold-out overnight, before the show floor even opened. Kalanithi says the toy blocks take advantage of the ever-cheaper and ever-smaller components found in smartphones as well as the market's demand for new user interfaces. 

He also says they also tap a desire for the unplugged games of yesteryears:

"There's a long tradition of hands-on play," Kalanithi says, "games like checkers, mahjong, jacks, or poker." Video games are more interactive, he says, but can also make for catatonic play--"zone-out style." Sifteo has designed the blocks to keep the interactivity but forgo the stupor.

Right now the company develops most of the games--including puzzles, adventure, and educational programs--in-house, but Kalanithi says they plan to open up the system's API and invite third parties to develop their own apps for the blocks later this year.

Kalanithi and Sifteo co-founder David Merrill first envisioned the blocks while at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Whimsy is no stranger to that lab: Harmonix founders made a prototype of the game Guitar Hero there, and it's where the One Laptop per Child project got its start.

Kalanithi says that it wasn't easy to turn this academic project into a commercial product: "2009 was a rough year to raise money." Still, the company managed to get investors including the Foundry Group, True Ventures, and the National Science Foundation on board. The appeal, he believes, was how instinctive playing with the technology is: "I think we had something that people really understood--and really liked."

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