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Toys Technology

Demo of Spatially Aware Blocks 109

Chris Anderson writes "This 5-min demo just posted from last week's TED — got a big crowd reaction. It's a new technology coming out of MIT, about to be commercialized. Siftables have been seen before, but not like this. They're toy blocks/tiles that are spatially aware and interact with each other in very cool ways. Initial use may be as toys, but there's big potential for new paradigm of spatially-aware physical mini computers."
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Demo of Spatially Aware Blocks

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  • by Bruiser80 ( 1179083 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @01:53PM (#26846381)
    I for one welcome our modular overlords.
  • I don't think there is much more that can be said... the TED video is awesome. I can see that tech built into things like phones. Shake it at your PC and get an address book sync. and other such things... awesome.

    • I'd make one of my house, then another of the pesky neighbor kid, and shake the kid out of the house.

    • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @03:37PM (#26847909)

      Shake it at your PC and get an address book sync. and other such things... awesome.

      Perhaps I have a healthy dose of skepticism of virtually anything that comes from the MIT Media lab, but I don't find this even remotely desirable. And have you noticed that the iPhone for two product generations has had the capability to utilize motion for gestures, and hasn't?

      Also, notice what the little kid does with it, after watching other people play with it. The kid saw that they could change, make noise, etc. And what does he do?

      He stacks them like regular building blocks. Completely treating them as just pure, inanimate physical objects, despite having it extensively demonstrated to him that they can be interacted with. Which pretty much shoots to hell Merrill's high-falutin' speech about...gah, it was so buzzword-laden, I can't even remember. Something about how we need these interactive blocks to learn?

      Oh yes, and the sound/music thing was a direct ripoff of something that did exactly the same thing on a multi-touch table, about a year or two ago, recognizing shapes placed on the table and how they were manipulated.

      This seems like a great possibility for adult-level gaming (nobody's going to buy something this expensive just for their kids), but nothing more.

      • You might be thinking of the Korg Kaoss pad, used by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead amongst others: []
      • You misinterpreted his comments about infant learning. He didn't say that you need _these_ interactive blocks to learn, he said that physical things like blocks are instrumental to learning. The point being that our brains are better wired to deal with spatial relationship than abstract numbers and the like.

        That kid was pretty young and I don't think anyone was expecting him to create a symphony. He did exactly what you'd expect a child of that age to do.

      • by db32 ( 862117 )
        Are you f'ing serious? You are basing this opinion of the notion based on what a toddler did with them? Crayons will never catch on either because kids that age just want to eat them... Holy shit man, if our use of things were based on how toddlers interact with things we would be getting Playdoh burgers at fast food places.
      • this video. If these are touted as tools for learning, why did we only have a fraction of the demonstration showing them being used by children?

        Perhaps that illustrates the concepts are too complicated for children of the age whereby blocks are a learning toy. Parent is right, putting essentially what is a little TV (with dinky sound) on a child's block does not necessarily make it a better block, nor does it imbue the qualities of children's blocks into a bunch of tiny computers. Children learn to t

  • News about new minicomputers would've been great if this was 1965!

  • by Facetious ( 710885 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:02PM (#26846519) Journal
    I subscribe to the TED channel in Miro, and it so happens that I watched this last night with my 11-year old son. I was impressed, but for me a better indicator of a product's viability is how my son perceives the product. He thought they were awesome.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      Whether or not an 11 year old thinks they are awesome does indicate their marketability. Their viability as tool will be determined by where they are two weeks after he gets them - in use, or in the bottom of the closet.

    • The blocks are an interesting controller/display, but the real make-or-break element is the application. I agree with some of the posters here that you could do many of the same things in the demo using a simple mouse-driven interface. Are the blocks supplying all the computing hardware, or do they function in concert with a central computer?

      The strength of these as a controller/display is what they bring to the table that more common hardware such as a mouse/keyboard/monitor combination do not. Their

    • I am going to be looking for these to come onto the market. I kid you not. These are the coolest toys *ever*. I'm sure my nieces and nephews will love them, too. ;)

      Seriously, though, not only can they be a lot of fun just to "play" with, there is no question that they can be used as teaching tools. I also forsee educational/mind-stimulating uses with handicapped persons and "Special needs" children.

  • by uxbn_kuribo ( 1146975 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:04PM (#26846541)
    With Self Replicating Robots. Skynet's soldiers will need to be able to know their proximity to one another.
  • Cube World Anyone? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheRealMindChild ( 743925 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:04PM (#26846553) Homepage Journal
    How is this different than Cube World []?
    • These are real (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 )

      I mean seriously, doing something on a computer is neat but that doesn't mean doing the same thing in the real world is easy. In a computer, it is no problem to have all objects aware of the location of all other objects. Not only is communication between processes/functions/threads/whatever easy, the objects in a computer program probably aren't self controlling little scripts. They are probably just objects rendered by a larger program controlling them all.

      It is rather something different to have a bunch

      • Re:These are real (Score:5, Informative)

        by dreemernj ( 859414 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:51PM (#26847151) Homepage Journal
        The Cube World stuff he linked to is a series of children's toys. They are physical blocks with little stick figure people in them. If you put them together they recognize the connection and react. You can also do things like tilt them to interact with the stick figure people.

        The Siftables at TED are much more capable and more powerful. But there are at least some basic elements that are almost identical to the CubeWorld toys.

        One of my younger cousins has these. She loves them.
    • Cubed Anyone? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Fumus ( 1258966 )
      Bah. It's just Cubed [] v2.0
    • Cube World can't Add !!
    • by Thail ( 1124331 )
      There's another block out there that is also very similar, event he video is similar, though they aren't quite as advanced. Check them out at Thinkgeek []
  • by Anonymous Coward
  • by RevWaldo ( 1186281 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:17PM (#26846735)
    Hopefully you just dump 'em in a box and they inductively charge. Otherwise the demand for power squids is gonna go through the roof.
  • by DAldredge ( 2353 ) <SlashdotEmail@GMail.Com> on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:19PM (#26846763) Journal
    They must cost way too much for the price to not be mentioned.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by TinBromide ( 921574 )
      i think this is a prototype, so it may be in the range of 70-300k for that first set. The price may come down once they start producing more.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      The prototypes are probably quite expensive. Here [] is a more technical description of the system. I think you can find most of this stuff in ~50$ cellphones, and they even have an antenna. I don't think why this should cost more than ~30$ a piece.

    • I bet those little suckers also drain the battery.

      I hope they recharge them wirelessly, otherwise they will end up failing in the market if you have to plug each one into a recharger.

  • by Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:22PM (#26846789) Journal

    Smart building blocks? I'm not looking forward to a Lego Terminator coming out of this.

  • I find it fascinating that a large amount of the comments are odes to the death of TED.

    This is a amazing education tool (not an education toy) I would buy a set for my godson in a flash.

    I just hope that Moore's law brings us 'The Young Lady's Illustrated Primmer' by the time I start a family.

    • by Whorhay ( 1319089 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:40PM (#26847003)

      I was thinking along the same lines.

      They'd probably be excellent for teaching children to read and write. Just combine it with software that reads or tries to read the words the child spells by combining the letters. The child could be given a specific set of letters and rewarded by how many words they can spell correctly using the set. Or you could have the program pronounce words and the child then reproduces the word with the blocks.

      Granted these are all things you could do with a computer now, but this obviously allows for easier manipulation by the child and is more intuitive than using a keyboard. Not to mention it might be indistinguishable from a game in the childs eyes. And getting kids to enjoy and actively seek out learning is probably the biggest hurdle in our educational system.

      • And getting kids to enjoy and actively seek out learning is probably the biggest hurdle in our educational system.

        I don't know. I find young kids to be naturally curious and eager to learn. It seems the biggest hurdle in our educational system is figuring out how not to destroy that while still productively fostering a complex knowledge base.
    • I couldn't agree more. I suspect these folks are in the minority Luddite contingent of /. These blocks were amazing, and are a great UI, especially for kids.

      I look forward to being able to buy these blocks in a store one day.
      • You hit on the problem, indirectly. This site is filled with people who are pissed that people aren't forced to use the command line to interact with computers anymore. Any sort of UI that takes less than four years to learn gives them a rage-on.

      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        I couldn't agree more. I suspect these folks are in the minority Luddite contingent of /. These blocks were amazing, and are a great UI, especially for kids.

        Or, perhaps, they just think this idea is stupid. There are tons of idiotic ideas that come out in the tech world. There's nothing wrong with finding any particular idea useless.

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      How are you going to pay the actress, the one that is key to it working?

      Kindle actually brings a big chunk of the rest of it.

  • Uh-huh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BigBlueOx ( 1201587 ) on Friday February 13, 2009 @02:26PM (#26846841)
    I believe the first Replicators were built to be toys too.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Came in for the SG-1 reference. Not leaving disappointed.

  • Back around 2001, I got an email from a researcher (in Manitoba, if memory serves me) who was working with hardware blocks and a modified Quake engine.

    When the blocks were plugged together, internal microcontrollers reported the block configuration back to the master circuit, which translated the block configuration into the Quake engine.

    Result: user assembles blocks, Quake displays the block configuration.

    The hope was that the system could help with rehabilitation of stroke victims. I don't know the outcom

  • I've just played a pretty grueling PnP campaign using the Hackmaster rules (IMO superior design to D&D). Seeing these blocks gave me many ideas for how some of the tedious features of tabletop roleplaying are ripe to be outsourced to a computer. I initially pictured each player having a touchpad that displays relevant information, like a map of explored territory, "what they see" and their character sheet. The real payoff (and this is definitely needed) would be in large combat situations. All it would

    • by Zerth ( 26112 )

      That's actually been on slashdot before. []

      Google RPG table projector for more

    • I see a lot of potential for interactive RPG gaming here. Sure, games would still take place in dimly-lit basements, but with the blocks acting as detached characters/figurines and all combat taking place on-screen.

      ...Because D&D needs to get dorkier.

  • I'm assuming each block currently has its own rechargeable battery. If so, without some working wireless power transmission or at least a wireless charger, the blocks could become tremendously annoying. You would play with them, and then eventually they'd start randomly running out of juice while you're doing something... But obviously not all at the same time, you'd just have less and less blocks to play with.
  • scrabble technology.
  • This is a tech that seems like it should be cool, but from the demos it's incredibly boring.
  • power (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mestar ( 121800 )

    and soon the batteries will last for more than 2 minutes.

  • The link in the article is to David Merrill's talk at TED2009. Here is a link to David's Siftables project page at the MIT Media Lab []
  • Each block can contain:

    A function
    A variable or array
    A recursion... or a special C shape for recursions...

    And now you are programming by moving these blocks around in various ways.

    Only if your cat get's on your desk it's going to be much worse than the time it stomped on your keyboard.

  • Clearly the demo focuses on children's toys because that is an easy place to start.

    Imagine these generalized in various ways (but without breaking the block paradigm). For instance, make them a bit larger and magnetic and the tiles could interact with smart whiteboards. Some interface would allow activating different applications.

    How about a groupware UML app that would validate expressions as a work group wrestles with laying out a software architecture? Or a calc B/C app for a high school AP class? Bu

  • It's a GEM. I am a music composer. Not only i see in these cubes an amazing and interesting way to play and to have fun but i also see them as a light materialization of electronic music softwares (free or not like Psycledelics [], Logic Pro []) and as an extension device ofr electronic instruments that can be used in studio or live.
  • The demo of making music reminded me of building things with Scratch [], except that it's done with physical objects instead of stacking and joining GUI elements on screen.

  • This was one of the coolest technological demo's i've seen in a while. I wish I would have seen it live. What an awesome concept!

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