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Interview: Sifteo Founders Pursue Wii-Like Enchantment
Interview: Sifteo Founders Pursue Wii-Like Enchantment Exclusive
April 13, 2011 | By Chris Morris

April 13, 2011 | By Chris Morris
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris talks to Sifteo co-founders David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi about their new gaming system that plays games via small electronic blocks communicating wirelessly with a PC.]

Long before people take a side in the Sony vs. Nintendo vs. Microsoft vs. Apple snipefests that so often dominate forum and comment chatter, they start with much simpler gaming interests.

Blocks... Sticks... Rocks... In many cases, board game pieces… Love of gaming often begins with some sort of tactile sensation. That physical connection sometimes fades once players get exposed to video games, but David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi are hoping to bring it back, by fusing the best parts of traditional and video gaming.

The pair are the co-founders of Sifteo, a new gaming system that plays a variety of games via small electronic blocks that communicate wirelessly with a PC.

Equipped with LCD screens and 3D motion sensors, the blocks can show shapes, letters and images and interact with each other when moved, flipped or tilted. Owners buy new games for the system via an app store run by the company.

"Classic games … have been a part of human experience for a really long time," says Merrill. "That's what we used to talk about when we would talk about social games - before the Zyngas of the world came along and changed the definition."

"Video games lose that dynamic of across-the-table play. You're either buried in your own personal display - or there's a big screen on the wall, for things like Kinect. … None of the current modern video game [systems] recreate the around-the-table classic game feel. Sifteo brings together these two great traditions."

It's far off the path of the traditional video game world, but Merrill says Nintendo's success with the DS and the Wii (as well as Microsoft's with Kinect) has shown that there is a tremendous hunger for change.

"We're a company building a new platform that performs a new type of gameplay," he says. "For me Nintendo is a hero for bringing the Wii out. They recognized a way to capture the attentions of people who never considered themselves video game players. They realized there was a hole in the market no one was filling. We think we see a similar hole."


Sifteo was born in the MIT media lab as a research project. The company's co-founders both have a background in cognitive science and human computer interactions – but realized that gaming was a natural fit for the project they were working on.

"Some of the most cutting edge technology is being used to make great game machines," says Merrill. "When you think about how people are using computers [and traditional game devices], there's no physicality. We thought: Why can't my interactions with technology be more like my interactions with physical objects?"

At present, only a limited number of people are able to testify about the system's fun factor. Right before this year's CES, Sifteo opened up its site for pre-orders. It sold out within 12 hours – and the shipments began a couple weeks ago.

Later this year, it plans to open the doors to the online store again permanently. And it's aiming to be in brick and mortar retail outlets in 2012.

It's not a cheap system, though. For three of the blocks, two games, a USB dock for your PC and charger, you'll pay $150. Admittedly, that's less than any of the current console or portable systems, but Sifteo's compact qualities could work against it. Let's face it, it's a lot easier to misplace a cube that's less than 2 square inches than it is to lose a PS3. (Lost cubes can be replaced for $40 each.)

Games will range from $1 to $8 each – with experimental gameplay methods and mini-games available for free.

At present, all game development is being done in house. Once again using the Nintendo analogy, Merrill says it wants its products to show other developers what the system can do. By year's end, the company hopes to have 20-30 titles available for the system.

It expects to open up the SDK later this year and Merrill says conversations are already underway with some potential partners, but it's too early to make announcements.

"I think our system taps into a classic understandable type of gameplay," says co-founder Jeevan Kalanithi. "It's not the case that we're coming so far out of left field that people won't know what we're doing."

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Glenn Storm
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I've been watching this make its way to market, and it should be interesting to see how the market responds.

Tim Carter
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The great thing about tabletop games is the players see all the rules, and ultimately control them as well.

Carlo Delallana
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Compared to other platforms I find the Sifteos to be the most playFULL (emphasis). It's tactile, it encourages social proximity play and spatial manipulation, facilities that our species has developed through thousands of years of evolution. It's a wonderful blend of analog and digital experiences.

Once Sifteos can support installed apps (ditching the need for a computer nearby) it can be a contender in the gaming and app space.

Luis Guimaraes
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They certainly achieved their goal. Awesome thing! With capital-A

Edit: Plus, seeing the games it already has, and thinking about what can be done, I have to repeat the old mantra: limits bread creativity.

Bart Stewart
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If they can bring the price per block down by an order of magnitude (and perhaps reduce the size slightly), I can imagine an explosion of games being licensed and developed for this system.

Imagine the gameplay possibilities if 150-200 blocks were affordable and would fit on the typical dining table. Carcasonne would be just the starting point....

Lennard Feddersen
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Would absolutely love to be making games for these at a different price point but I think they also need a nice big table sized tablet to be played on top of.

Andrew Grapsas
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I feel like I could build some cool Dungeons & Dragons tech with these...

Leon T
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"None of the current modern video game [systems] recreate the around-the-table classic game feel."

That is not true at all. I get that same feel with a few games playing local and online. Still this looks interesting.

Only being able to connect to a PC limits the appeal for me though. Why not allow users to buy apps through their smart phones as well? The appeal of the device will not be the broad either imo.

Jeremy Glazman
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"Lost cubes can be replaced for $40 each"

According to the website it seems that you can also just buy more cubes to add to your enjoyment of the system, rather than only to replace lost ones...

3 cubes definitely is not enough, from the demo games it seems like you would need 5 or 6 before it really gets interesting, at least in a multiplayer environment. $40 per cube is pretty steep though...

The screens on the blocks also pose a problem to social gameplay, since they are hard to read except in very specific conditions. Awesome idea though, can't wait to see what direction developers take it in.

David Serrano
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There was a Discovery channel show a few years back that showed Merrill or Kalanithi researching applications for the blocks at MIT. I think the original idea was to use them as a teaching tool. On the show, they were using the blocks to teach kids basic math. I don't know if the games will be any good but the blocks themselves are really, really cool.