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Emily LakdawallaNovember 30, 2011

Reviews of two modular toys: Modular Robotics Cubelets and Sifteo Cubes

OK, these aren't strictly space-related. But they seemed so awesome I couldn't resist buying them, and I imagine they'll appeal to a lot of space geeks as they did to me. Modular Robotics Cubelets and Sifteo Cubes are two variations on a theme: electronic toys that consist of many individual devices that produce complex behavior when touched together. Both are not cheap, listing at $300 (though you can get started with Sifteo for $150). I think the Cubelets are more successful; the Sifteo Cubes don't quite live up to their price tag, though they are fun enough.

Modular Robotics Cubelets

Modular Robotics Cubelets
Modular Robotics Cubelets

What's in the box are 20 multicolored plastic cubes studded with teeny magnets. With the magnets, cubes can stick together face-to-face in virtually any combination. Each cubelet is an independent device. There are input cubelets, like distance sensors (you get two of these), and there are output cubelets, like motorized wheels and a light and a variable pitch beeper. There's a single battery cubelet that runs power to everything, and then there are multicolored "think" cubelets. They tell you what these are on their website but I think it will actually be a lot more fun for me to play with the "think" cubelets to puzzle out what they do. One I've found is obvious -- the red ones are "not" cubelets, so if you've connected things in a way that a roller wheel rolls when an input sensor is triggered, and then you put a "not" one in between the roller and the sensor, then the roller wheel will roll when the input sensor is not triggered and be motionless when it is.

So the things invite experimentation -- snap some together, see what they do; break, rearrange, and stick 'em together again. In a few minutes I'd found a three-cube combination that followed my hand across a table. Take the roller wheel off that one, turn it around, and it becomes a three-cube robot that avoids your hand. I was playing with the things with my two-year-old this morning and produced a five-cube one that was motionless until she used her finger to cover the brightness sensor block, at which point it pirouetted under her finger. Then I made a wand that beeped quickly at high pitch when it approached an object and slowly at low pitch when I waved it away, kind of like a Geiger counter. These are just few-cube combinations -- more experimentation will yield more complex behavior.

Cubelets Engineering Prototypes from eric schweikardt on Vimeo.

I've played with robotics toys before, most recently LEGO Mindstorms (though not the current generation of that one). What's wonderful about Cubelets is that all of the "programming" is performed simply by turning blocks. It's effortless to snap them apart and reassemble them. There's no language to learn at all -- even a non-verbal kid would be able to produce, troubleshoot, modify, and expand her own robot. My two-year-old just stacked them like they were building blocks, of course, enjoying how they clicked together so neatly with their magnets. She doesn't understand why combinations of blocks behave as they do but she can certainly figure out that the same block put in different places will behave differently. I can see this toy being worth hours of puzzlement and investigation by budding engineers. Playing with it, I remembered fondly the Capsela gear kits I had as a kid, which featured transparent spheres that could join orthogonally, each of which contained a different gear combination -- crown gear, worm gear, differential, and so on. Cubelets are kind of similar but they have that element of programming and logic. What they're missing (compared to Capsela) is that transparent view inside that lets you know how they work. I would love to learn about the electronics inside the Cubelets, but in the meantime they're fun to play with!

Kids playing with Cubelets
Kids playing with Cubelets
At the 2011 Bay Area Maker Faire.

They seem fairly solidly built, though there are places where the plastic parts don't perfectly meet, leaving tiny open seams. I don't think I would even have noticed these but for one of the entries on the Modular Robotics blog explaining why it's taken so long to produce them. The toys are assembled and tested in the U.S. but most of their components come from China, and Modular Robotics has had numerous problems with production quality from their Chinese part suppliers. Clearly they're willing to accept schedule delays in order to ensure that their quality standard is met, but it does make me wonder how much they really saved by not going with American or even Mexican parts manufacturers...

You won't be able to get a set of Cubelets by Christmas. But if you're patient, you'll get a set. I think I ordered mine in August and I just received them this week. They're not yet taking pre-orders for their third production round, but you can sign up on a mailing list or become a Facebook fan or follow their Twitter account in order to be informed when they're ready to start taking orders again.

Sifteo Cubes

Sifteo Cubes
Sifteo Cubes

Sifteo Cubes are basically a game platform in which the games are played on three to six tiny little square computers (not "cubes," really, but that's easier to say than "squat square prisms"). Each one has a 1.5-inch (7-centimeter) screen, which also serves as a button that can be pressed, and they contain accelerometers that let them know when they're being tilted or flipped over. They can also detect when they're placed adjacent to each other, and on which side, which is the key to most of the games that are played with them. A starter set ($150) contains three cubes, a charger, and a USB dongle (more on that in a bit). You can add up to three additional cubes at $45 apiece.

There are currently 17 games available. My older daughter has three favorites. One is Word Play, an anagrams-type one in which a different letter appears on each square and you try to assemble words out of the letters. The second is Gopher Run, a game in which you maneuver a gopher through a maze by tilting blocks, but you can never see the whole maze at once, only as much of it will fit on as many blocks you have, and you rearrange the blocks to find where the maze goes. The third is the included Creativity Kit, a customizeable ordering game in which I can create ordered lists (like {10,20,30,40,50} or {red, orange, green, blue, purple}) for her to arrange in order. I also like "Matchination," a game in which you have to match geometric shapes on cube edges by matching two of three qualities -- shape, color, or pattern -- fast enough to eliminate all the shapes and move on to the next level. The demo below is of "Loop Loop," a mesmerizing game that they make available for free.

Stimulant LoopLoop for Sifteo from Stimulant on Vimeo.

They're fun but they're hampered by the fact that they are not in themselves "smart" devices. The games are all run from a computer, which must be in continuous communication with the blocks through a USB dongle. The dongle's range is fairly short, so you must play with Sifteo Cubes on the same table as the computer -- OK with a laptop, a pain if a desktop is the only machine you have in your house. My five-year-old can play many of the games on her own but she can't just pick them up and do it -- she has to ask for me to get my Netbook out and take several minutes to set the whole thing up, and she has to ask my help whenever she wants to switch games. They seem as though they should be as easy for her to play with as my iPhone, but in practice the amount of parent interference required is more like a Wii.

Another thing that bugs me is the way game purchases work. The games aren't expensive, currently either free, $1, or $3, but you don't purchase them directly; you have to buy packages of "points" in increments of 100 (at a rate of $1 for 100 points), and use the points to buy the games. I have no idea why they do this, especially since a game that costs 100 points feels more expensive than a game that costs $1. And with the price of the cubes themselves being so high, I felt like I should get more enjoyment right out of the box without having to pay for games. You might argue that the games cost no more than iPhone apps, but the difference is that an iPhone can do a heck of a lot of useful stuff without the purchase of any more apps, or with just free apps, while the Sifteo cubes are absolutely not worth the money until you buy nearly all of the available games. There are currently 17 games available, and there is a software development kit; new games are added occasionally. The total cost to buy all the games is $21, I think. At that price, I seriously don't understand why they don't just bundle all the existing games for free when you purchase 6 cubes.

They're spiffy and unique. Presumably there'll be more games with time, which will make them more fun. If they could only remove the tether to a computer! If these things could be run from a smartphone, they would be far superior. If you want to take the plunge, I think the three-cube starter set is too few -- I'd recommend buying four to begin with, if you don't want to go all the way to six.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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