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Plugged In

Sifteo cubes hope to build into holiday hit

Plugged In

If video games and traditional toys were to have a secret love child, it might look a lot like the Sifteo cube.

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Sifteo Cubes (Sifteo)

Introduced as a prototype at a TED conference in 2009, the gadget/toys are a fusion of classic building blocks and cutting-edge tech. And while it's a bit early to label the Sifteo this year's frenzy-inducing hot holiday toy, don't be surprised if it ends up on a lot of gamer wish lists.

Think of the cubes, which begin shipping in September, as "smart building blocks" — the techno-savvy next step for LEGOs and Lincoln Logs. They measure 1.5-inches each and come armed with an internal gyroscope and a clickable color screen. They also know when they're near each other — and that's when the fun starts. As you move, tilt and flip the cubes, they interact with one another, which opens up all sorts of play possibilities.

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Early reviews of the device have been fairly glowing.

"I'm happy to report that trying them for myself stoked my enthusiasm rather than dampened it," writes Time's Harry McCracken. "They're genuinely new and well done, and they have great potential. Countless toys have claimed to be the future of play; Cubes could actually deliver on that promise."

And David Pogue at the New York Times calls them "a kick in the imagination" and notes "nobody's ever seen anything like them".

It's pretty compelling stuff, but before you reach for your wallet, it's important to note there are some sizable hurdles Sifteo will have to overcome before it takes the market by storm.

The biggest is price. A cube starter kit -- which comes with 3 cube and a charging station -- costs $150. Extra cubes cost $45. To put that in context, you can pay the same amount for either a new Wii, a Kinect sensor, or three Sifteo cubes. That's tough competition.

Content is also a bit of an issue, as only a few games are included. The rest are purchased in an app store, of sorts, with prices ranging from free to $5 (for the better games).

Also, despite their size, the cubes don't travel very well. They have to be within 20 feet of a computer to operate, and all sounds come from that computer as well. Not exactly vacation-friendly. (Though to Sifteo's credit, the search for an alternative is already underway.)

It's a tough sell, but the company founders say they offer something their competitors don't.

"Classic games … have been a part of human experience for a really long time," co-founder David Merrill told Gamastura. "That's what we used to talk about when we would talk about social games -- before the Zyngas of the world came along and changed the definition. Video games lose that dynamic of across-the-table play. You're either buried in your own personal display -- or there's a big screen on the wall, for things like Kinect. … None of the current modern video game [systems] recreate the around-the-table classic game feel. Sifteo brings together these two great traditions."

There are 15 games available for the system today, including Moon Marble, in which you tilt a cube to guide a ball through a series of mazes, and the built-in Creativity Kit, which lets users create their own games by putting cubes in the right order — a boon for educational purposes.

Sifteo isn't the only video game/toy hybrid hitting the market this year. Activision has been beating the drum loudly for Skylander's: Spyro's Adventure and, to a lesser extent, Wappy Dog. And Hasbro has an LCD block version of its popular vocabulary game called Scrabble Flash.

Still, Sifteo says it believes the familiar elements of the cubes will help it stand out from the crowd.

"I think our system taps into a classic understandable type of gameplay," says co-founder Jeevan Kalanithi. "It's not the case that we're coming so far out of left field that people won't know what we're doing."

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-- Play Gems Twist at Yahoo! Games --

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