Decoding Design

Innovation lessons from a breakthrough interactive toy: Sifteo

Posting in Design

Sifteo, a new game system of tiny, interactive, and motion-aware blocks, is garnering early critical praise. The reviews suggest ways that Sifteo can serve as a model for designing imaginative products that could have mass appeal.

Next month, kids and adults who love games of all kinds--video games, board games, tactile building blocks--will finally be able to play all three at the same time, in a way. That's if you believe the hype surrounding Sifteo, a new system of interactive, motion-sensitive blocks with full-color video screens that will begin shipping to customers in September. It's likely to be one of the most sought-after toys this holiday season.

This past week saw numerous favorable early reviews of Sifteo, which allows players to physically interact with virtual game scenes and other imagery they see on 1.5-inch cubes that are sold in packs of three (for $150). Players can also build their own games for the cubes. The positive reviews, timed with Sifteo's much-anticipated August 10 announcement that the product is now available for pre-order, appeared in outlets ranging from The New York Times to Wired.com, from Business Insider to Fast Company's Co.Design Web site. Looking at the reviews, it's possible to draw some valuable design and innovation lessons for not only game developers and toy manufacturers, but also for anyone interested in what's timely in product design.

First, some quick background on Sifteo: the system first gained momentum when it was unveiled in prototype form at the TED conference in 2009. Then it grabbed the attention of numerous journalists covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year. Here's a video that Sifteo created to explain how the cubes work:

And now for the innovation and design lessons from Sifteo's early and widespread critical success:

  • Their unusually small and ultra-tactile form makes them physically compelling. Although there has been so much popular interest in phone or tablet game apps lately, the touchable nature of Sifteo is winning over tech and design gurus in terms of what games they're featuring lately. Suzanne LaBarre of Fast Company wrote, "[Sifteo] takes user commands and turns them into real, live jolts and tilts and clicks, which give tangible form to something we experience every day but never actually see. Call it a victory for inside-out interface design." And Erica Naone, writing for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, stated that "the tactile process of moving the blocks contributes to [Sifteo's] appeal." Lesson: Creating a uniquely sized, tangible experience might be more attention-getting today than merely a cool onscreen interface design.
  • They have educational, and not just entertainment, potential. Sifteo is a product that could find renewable sales not only via consumers, but also educators. David Pogue of the New York Times wrote that "Sifteo cubes are fascinating, innovative and different. They may find a niche as educational tools." Business Insider's Steve Kovach echoed the idea, writing in his coverage of Sifteo, "There's also huge potential for education." Lesson: Design for a possible niche that could outlast consumer trends.

While it's early to say that Sifteo will definitely catch on with consumers, the fact that the cubes have captured the attention of so many respected critics so early on suggests that they're poised to sell well. If the hype proves right, Sifteo will also be a success in terms of innovative product design, with characteristics that others are likely to emulate.

Photo: Sifteo

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure