February 20, 2009 It is believed that many children and adults learn best when they use their hands to perform a task, and for young children, play-based activities are essential for acquiring knowledge. This new design concept cleverly combines both hands-on and play-based learning in one very cool but tiny package. Siftables are small computer blocks with the capacity to interface with each other using a combination of neighbor detection, motion sensing and wireless communication. The user manipulates them by hand and with each process, whether it is sorting, grouping or even piling, the blocks continue to interact with each other.

The brainchild of David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi from the MIT Media Lab, the digital cubes work independently and in concert with each other, where they can be manipulated as a group to interact with digital and media information. Siftables have a color LCD screen, a rechargeable battery and RF radio. They are compact (approx. 1.4” x 1.4” x .39”) and contain four infrared transceivers. Whilst manipulating the blocks the user receives visual feedback via the screen and can play auditory feedback on their wireless computer.

The Siftable can sense its own motion when it is moved around a table and recognizes when it comes into contact with other objects, as well as when it is lifted or shaken.

The size of Siftables means that they can be easily integrated into our lives. “Now that computational power comes in such tiny packages, I believe it is just our design understanding that must catch up in order for our computers to facilitate amazingly great, useful, and sociable interactions,” said David Merrill.


Siftables were inspired by thinking about the way humans order small physical objects. The analogy the MIT team use is to imagine sorting through a container of nuts and bolts, a person will spill, sort and manipulate materials using both fingers and hands and it is a quick, efficient process. Yet when we try to order digital or media information such as digital photographs or emails we use a mouse to move and position information and it is a much slower process than using fingers and both hands.

“Siftables aims to empower people to interact with information and media in physical, natural ways that approximate interactions with physical objects in our everyday lives,” said David Merrill.



The Siftables can be used by children in a multitude of ways including for spelling, mathematics and language. Much like Boggle or Scrabble tiles, children can have a number of Siftables with different letters which they sort and swap them to make words. When the correct combination is achieved, the Siftables light up and make a sound. After approximately 30 seconds, a new set of letters is provided. Similarly, children can manipulate groups of numerals and signs to make a correct equation. The advantage is that children can manipulate the Siftables quickly and the results are immediate.

Interactive Cartoons

The user simply picks up a Siftable and points it at the screen to bring a new character or object into the cartoon scene. By shaking the character Siftables and placing them next to each other will mean that the characters interact and begin communicating. Children will be able to create their own narrative every time they play.

Digital Photo organization

Just as you used to sort photographs by hand, the Siftables can contain thumbnails of photographs and the user can simply place Siftables into piles to create a group. The Siftables are connected to a wireless computer and the groupings are transmitted to it. The accelerometers will enable the Siftables to sense the movements and the radios will share information amongst the devices. When Siftables are bumped at about the same time, a new grouping will be transmitted back to the computer.


Siftables will sense which direction they are being held and if moved or tilted the video will change direction. Individual portraits of people will move depending on where they are placed, for example, if two Siftables containing video portraits are placed side-by-side, the people will look at each other.

Music sequencing

The Siftables will each have a different musical sound, drums, bass and lead and have four different sound combinations and the option to use reverb, tempo and volume to create a musical sequence. You simply bump them together and the sounds and effects you want are added into the musical sequence. The music can be sped up by tilting the tempo Siftable one way, the sequence can be re-arranged while it plays and the filter Siftable allows the user to create more expression in the music.

Obviously, there are a multitude of possibilities for these little gems, from story-boarding for advertisers to board room brainstorming sessions, so we will just have to wait patiently until they arrive.

For more information visit Siftables.

Via TED.

Jude Garvey

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