For many, the attractiveness of “going off the grid” comes from a place of nostalgia for the way things used to be. We used to read real books, turning paper pages and collecting book markers. We used to go on vacations where work didn’t follow us thanks to our smartphones. We played board games with our families at the table, and built block castles and forts when we were kids. Even sitting down at watching regularly scheduled programming on network TV sounds like the less complicated and reassuring days of old when we weren’t watching Internet TV in bed and on tablets.
While this nostalgia was real for Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi, the founders of the San Francisco-based start-up Sifteo, they thought they could give consumers the best of both worlds: the newest and best interactive game technology, but also the physicality and the feeling of the way we used to play.
Their product, Sifteo Cubes, are small blocks that communicate wirelessly to respond to each other and your movements. You can play a catalog of games with them, too — a base plays game audio and connects to your computer with a USB cord. In a way, they are Legos for the Nintendo Wii age.
Though their company is only a few years old, Merrill and Kalanithi have known each other since they took computer science classes together as undergraduate students at Stanford University. Both, even in their younger years, were fascinated by the relationship between people and computers. The two would go on to collaborate in graduate school at the MIT Media Lab, where Kalanithi was working on a master’s degree and Merrill was pursuing a Ph.D. What would later be called Sifteo was born here.
“There was an epiphany moment in the kitchen,” Merrill said, “of how great it felt to jab our hands into a pile of Legos, and how much we love Legos and blocks, and why couldn’t a computer be more like that? This was in the days when a mouse and keyboard were the thing, before multitouch had caught on. Our hands are so good at interacting with 3D stuff– why doesn’t tech take advantage of this?”
Which is where the name comes from: one’s hands sift through a pile of Lego blocks, and Merrill and Kalanithi’s blocks offer video-like visuals. Sifteo, then, aims to make a “siftable” computer.
The pair thought about what it would look like to make a general purpose interface, and came up with a few ideas for what this kind of product — multiple digital pieces that could be physically assembled in various combinations — could be good for. (One idea: sorting photos). In graduate school, the pair’s concept could evolve naturally, without the added pressure to deliver a perfect consumer product. When faced with real world applications for their research project, however, they were stumped.
The “Aha!” moment — Merrill calls it their “Kickstarter moment” — came when Merrill was asked to give a presentation and brief demonstration of a prototype for the 2009 TED conference. Something clicked with the audience: the video of his talk quickly climbed to one million views. As the pair finished up their studies at MIT, they began to lay the groundwork to start a company and to bring their idea to market.
“As we built the tech, we realized it could be a great game system,” Merrill said. “There was this possibility of a game system that would be a hybrid of classic tabletop games like dominoes and checkers mashed up with a video game that makes this classic play interactive. [To address the act of] play is a really noble cause — it’s a valuable part of who we are as humans; it makes us smart and, especially when we are kids, play is important in development.”
The gaming idea was also attractive because of its potential to disrupt the existing market. Today, children grow up with interactive entertainment and tools all around them. If Merrill and Kalanithi didn’t do something different, they believed those devices would all turn out to be very similar to each other. They eventually found investors who agreed.
“We think there is more to humanity and play than touching a sheet of glass,” Merrill said. “We wanted to make a play system with a tactile nature, like a set of dominoes that can do anything.”
The first generation of Sifteo Cubes launched in September 2011. It was sold on the company’s website, at Amazon.com and at a few smaller retailers. But Merrill and Kalanithi were already at work on the second generation. The first version required a computer to operate. Could they make their cubes truly portable — no additional electronics necessary?
“[The answer to] that came out of this brainstorm with our team,” Merrill said. “A few people from each department in a war room design session one evening with pizza.”
The final result was lower cost, portable blocks with improved graphics. The team is also launching the product with a software development kit and publishing program in tow, allowing outside developers access to program for the blocks.
“It’s really a platform, but it can be deceptive when you first look at it,” Merrill said. “What you don’t see when you are opening up the boxes is that it’s a platform as sophisticated as a Wii. Wii to TV is Sifteo to coffee table.”
Sifteo seems to tap into a recent trend of interactive-minded start-ups that make both software and hardware. Others include FitBit (a personal fitness assistant), Makerbot (a three-dimensional printer), Nest (a smarter thermostat) and Vitality (smart pill bottle caps). These companies have all used the Internet to successfully form passionate communities around their fledgling products — items that may not have made it to store shelves otherwise.
“It’s exciting to see this community forming, and people sharing information,” Merrill said, ”and you’ll see more interesting products that are different than the mainstream, like Apple.”
Though they have not yet officially launched the second generation of Sifteo Cubes — any day now, they promise — Merrill and Kalanithi are already excited at the possibilities for how their product can be used, now that they’ve opened it up to outside developers. The company also has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game in the works with Nickelodeon, they say, and they are working with Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: the Gathering, on making a Sifteo game.
“With any platform, it’s important to be stable for a long time to develop a large library of titles on it,” Merrill said. “We’re going to keep on poking around and investigating on what can make it cooler and better.”