SF start-up creating touch-interactive video games

January 23, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
In San Francisco, all those technology start-ups south of Market are not just about social networking. You can now add one that makes a smart toy, or maybe it's not a toy, but a new kind of calculator. You can decide.

Richard Hart reports on the Drive to Discover a video game that responds to touch.

"What we are doing is taking the hands-on, tabletop style of classic games, and then infusing it with the interactivity of video games," explains David Merrill.

That's the dream of Merrill and his partner Jeevan Kalanithi. This is a new way to play games, to learn math, and to use computers: smart cubes designed to mimic the way we interact with game pieces, Monopoly, Legos, dominoes...

Merrill points out, "You reach in and push some of them around with this hand and that hand. You might throw your arm down and push them across the table. It's this very physical way of interacting with objects. And, we thought, 'Why can't our interactions with computers be more like that?' My cofounder and I both studied human/computer interaction, so we both have a background of being interested in how we can improve the experience of using technology. That's something we both care very deeply about."

It began at Stanford University as research into human/computer interaction. Then, the two moved on to the MIT's Media Lab, where the fun and games began. Jeevan and David invented Sifteo cubes, rechargeable screens that respond to touch, to each other, to the way you hold them and tilt them, like a Wii controller that went to college.

The cubes communicate with a computer through a wireless network. In a game called Chroma Shuffle, you align the edges to match colored dots. In another, you rush to create new paths for Booker the Penguin to find lost eggs and escape a monster. Learn to spell by touching the correct letter to a partial word or work math problems without a calculator.

Part of the technology behind it is the same technology that enables smart phones to know where they are and how they are being held. "That has reduced the cost of all these electronic components," Merrill says, "and boosted their quality and made them generally available."

Cubes will be sold first as a new kind of game system, but Sifteo is betting that a software development kit will enable a robust market in apps that nobody has yet envisioned. Call them cube apps. The new cubes themselves won't be in stores for few months yet.

Now, Angry Birds players will have something to throw at those pigs.