Why Siftables Excite Me

I first saw Siftables at TED 2009, where David Merrill demonstrated them. I immediately tweeted, “Omg. Siftables are awesome. Google it, watch videos. #ted.” Here’s the talk:

My reaction was not unique. David was quite popular for the remainder of the event. There’s something about Siftables that taps into the “Well, duh” reaction, when you see something new that seems so obvious, which feels so inevitable. We had a couple of the folks from Tacolab, the creators of Siftables, over to Adaptive Path a week ago, and since then I’ve been trying to figure out what makes them so special.

We’re in an exciting time in human-computer interaction. There’s a lot of movement to get beyond the keyboard + mouse and towards new methods of interaction and input, whether it’s Wii-motes, iPhone’s touchscreen, or the Microsoft Surface table of CNN’s Magic Wall. And while I’m intrigued by all those tools, Siftables actually opens up a whole new avenue of inquiry.

See, one thing we’re still really stuck on is the Single Screen Interface. All of this activity is still geared toward a single display, whether a TV, mobile device, a computer screen, or a wall. (Seeing Siftables made me only even more frustrated with iPhone, because there’s no reason iPhones shouldn’t be able to directly engage with one another (I mean, even the original Palm Pilots allowed infrared beaming!). Instead, iPhones are isolated, attention-greedy devices.)

Siftables begins to suggest what happens when your computers are small, fast, cheap, and out of control (I very much think of Rodney Brooks’ comments in Errol Morris’ superb film, Fast Cheap and Out of Control.) There’s a whole new opportunity for connection, interaction, swarming, meshing, and emergence.

Importantly, the form of Siftables also speaks to *fun*. They’re blocks, and, as kids know, blocks are fun. The immediate impulse of anyone interacting with Siftables is to *play* with them.

For some reason I can’t quite figure, when I began to think of applications for Siftables, my mind went back, way back, to 1984, and Rocky’s Boots, an educational software title for the Apple II that taught basic computer logic through graphic assemblage of logic circuits. It would be awesome to physically build such circuitry with Siftables, and take advantage of their interactive nature. I then mused on whether you could program Siftables with a visual programming language on the Siftables, and then my head went all recursive and I had to do a hard reboot, probably with alcohol.