The Sifteo Platform, From a Developer’s Perspective


Sifteo Cubes are a novel idea first publicized in a TED talk in 2009.  In January 2011, Sifteo invited a limited number of people to join the early release program by pre-purchasing their starter kits.  The $100 kits sold out quickly, and customers received them about three months later.  I was one of those customers.

I don’t have, or spend, a lot of time on games.  But I was intrigued by their soon-to-be-available SDK.  As a developer, I was interested in seeing if this platform “had legs” by trying it out. I also wanted to get in on the ground floor as a third-party developer.

The SDK (Software Development Kit)

Fast forward to September. I’m personally tired of waiting for the Sifteo SDK, and my cubes have collected dust for the last six months:

The current location of my Sifteo cubes, for the last several months

This is the box of stuff I don't quite have a place for, in my office. I walked past it today, remembered that I had them, and decided to see if they ever got around to releasing that SDK.

I’ve been waiting since I ordered my early release cubes the first week of the year. I was led to believe the SDK was just around the corner. My interest was primarily in development, so they got my $100+ under false pretenses. I’m not saying they lied or did this on purpose, but the end result is the same to me.

Part of me wonders if they didn’t want to complete with third party developers on the core apps they had in the works. This is based on their failure to answer even simple questions until recently – such as, what language/platform will be used? I couldn’t think of a simpler and more readily available answer to give. Developers resorted to studying screen shots of code to take their best guess. Java and Python were the front-runners of the guessing game, but both were wrong: C# is the winner.

Sifteo has traditionally been very tight-lipped about their SDK release schedule, claiming several times that they didn’t have a date in mind, wanted the SDK to be solid, and so it would take however long it would take. Of course, this was well *after* developers like myself had paid to be part of the early release program. Again, even if they had the best of intentions, my end result is the same as if they’d deliberately mis-led me.

Signing up for their SDK-specific mailing list, I only received a couple e-mails over the months. They were general marketing blasts targeted to consumers. It turns out, I was really just signing up for their general mailing list. Ironically, I’ve since learned that their blog has been posting SDK-related info, that I *didn’t* receive via e-mail. I didn’t know they’d publicized a September SDK release until today (09/28/2011). Of course, it’s starting to look like it was just as well, since it doesn’t appear that they’ll actually *have* a September release.

The latest word from Sifteo staff is that the SDK should be ready within a week, pushing the release to early October:

Sifteo SDK release pushed back to October, according to staff

Sifteo staff's latest estimate of the SDK release date

The explanation given is that they have a small development team, and SDK development/documentation took a back seat to consumer-facing issues. That’s a reasonable response, mostly, but it would have been more useful and appreciated months ago.

The Product

The cubes themselves are novel and fun, but limited. Far from the “tiny blocks with brains“, as Time Magazine called them, they are simply small color screens with motion sensors and bluetooth connectivity. They don’t run apps, your computer does. The distinction is lost on many people, which is why I think reviewers have overlooked it thus far. Your computer must be nearby and running the Siftrunner application. You can’t switch games on the cubes themselves – you must go back to your computer to do this, as well. The cubes are merely new peripherals, like a mouse and small screen rolled into one. My kids can’t play them on long car rides, unless I bring my laptop to actually run the applications the whole time.

Bluetooth means you can’t stray too far from your computer. And despite the fact that the apps are actually running on your computer, which presumably has internet access, there’s no support for using your internet connection. This would open a whole new dimension of game play. Because of their simplicity, any game played on the cubes could easily be played against online players. The bandwidth requirements would be very small.

Product Comparison

Let’s put on our Consumer Reports hat for a moment, and contrast Sifteo with similar handheld platform: Cube World. My oldest son was into these for a couple years.  Similar in size, they have a low-resolution black-and-white display which allows you to interact with funny stick people.

Like Sifteo cubes, Cube World cubes can detect motion. Roll your cube over and over, and the tiny person trapped inside rolls around as if bound by gravity.  Keep it up, and he actually vomits digital blocks.  Put multiple cubes together, and the stick people can interact.  They have different games and toys, and seeing the interaction (sometimes playful, sometimes antagonistic) is fun.

Value

Cube World lacks a color display, multiple games, wireless connectivity, or the complexity of Sifteo. But they’re also not tethered to a computer, and the price ($25 a pair when they were in production) allowed you to buy a dozen cubes for the price of the Sifteo starter kit ($150 for three cubes and a charger).

With limited input options (movement, and placing cubes in proximity to one another), Sifteo cubes are limited as a gaming platform.  For another $20, you can walk into your local Sears and buy a brand new Nintendo 3DS.  I haven’t played a Sifteo game yet that keeps my interest for more than half an hour.  Speaking as a parent with a lot of road trip experience, you get a lot more peace and quiet for your dollar with the DS.

Summary

Suffice to say, I’ve been disappointed in Sifteo so far. They’ve done a great job of marketing. They got my $100 commitment before they ever had a physical product to sell, and they’ve gotten a lot of publicity from the media.

MIT degrees and TED exposure can only *start* a business. At some point, you have to deliver the goods. I can’t speak to consumer satisfaction. That will bear itself out soon, since I believe cubes have started shipping to the general public. From a developer’s perspective however, Sifteo’s debut falls short.

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