Sunday, January 02, 2011

Rubik's Touch Cube

The Rubik's Touch Cube is a great idea on paper that actually made it to product. The familiar look of the Rubik Cube is replicated here not with crude stickers on a rotating frame, but with multi-coloured LEDs projected onto a blank shell. As the name suggests, the cube is operated by touch, and not only that, but by gesture control.

Even before you reach the product, the packaging is premium quality. One would expect nothing less as this is not a cheap toy, even if I did pick mine up at a bargain price at the local Costco. The packaging consists of two halves of quality boxwork, with the cube nestled in a neatly cut foam inner lining. Beneath this is the charger and cradle.

The cube itself is a well constructed item and despite its looks, each face consists of smooth, clear plastic. Actually, this plastic film picks up scuffs really easily - if you have an iPod you'll know what I mean. Also, as it's a sensitive electronic device, you'll need to handle it like any other electronic device - I wouldn't like to drop it or leave it buried at the bottom of the toy cupboard.

Now, in a normally lit environment, this is a light up cube. So far so good. But in moderately dim or even darkness, the cube is positively dazzling in intensity. The pictures don't do it justice, for the colours are rich and vibrant. Each facet has the ability to show one of the six Rubik Cube colours.

The red, green, orange and blue are achieved using discrete LEDs, the white with (I'm guessing) a combination of the red, green and blue LEDs, while yellow is the green and blue LEDs mixed. The effect is arresting, because of the brightness and evenness of the light. It's almost like holding a movie special effect, it's that good.

Each face carries it's own function, operated by the centre facet under which is a microswitch. These need to be double clicked to operate, I guess to avoid accidental operation. There's a power button, scramble and unscramble, volume (yes), a hint button and an undo button. The other cool aspect of this cube is that only the upper face is sensitive to touch at any time. So the device must have some sort of gyro aboard to determine this.

Stroking a slice in either axis will cause the cube to simulate a twist, complete with an unconvincing and repetitive sample of a real cube being twisted. The touch also responds to a diagonal 'rotate the top face' type gesture, but this is harder to successfully pull off, as it often sends another face spinning inadvertently. In the end, one resorts to one dimensional stroking to achieve the desired move.

The scramble option applies 20 random moves to the current state of the cube, enough to get any cube fiddler started. Unscramble appears to work by applying a minimum move type algorithm to the current state of the cube and a lot of the time it's not completely obvious what's going on other than a series of unrelated moves. More on this later.

The hint option makes the cube wink the next move you need to make towards completion, again using the same algorithm.

Undo is obvious, but is most useful for those mistaken moves, especially when handling the cube or getting the orientation set. Solving the cube with my own archaic level-by-level approach is doable, even easy with a bit of re-training of the muscle memory - the need to keep the operating face uppermost can be frustrating at times and the undo facility (which can undo a whole series of moves) is really useful.

Now let's look at what I'd call the missed opportunities of this device.

Remember that each facet is individually settable to one of the six colours. Forgetting that the designers could have used a tri-colour LED with a huge colour palette, there was still an opportunity to set the device to display an evolving set of patterns and colour shifts. Throw in a microphone, and the cube could pulse away randomly to music. In a half hearted attempt at this, it does at least scramble and unscramble itself whilst on charge, lending a nightclub glow to the immediate surroundings.

Taking that idea further, why not add an mp3 player? Not only would you have sound to light, but it could be it's own sound.

Moving on, there's the solving algorithm. Yes, it solves itself, but doesn't in any kind of meaningful way, to me at least. It would have been better to allow the option to solve via both methods - layer by layer is arguably easier to memorise as a novice as there are only half a dozen or so simple move combos you need to know to solve the cube from any position. If, like myself, you do solve by layers, then choose the hint option, the cube goes off on a tangent and messes up your work to that point.

Lastly, and kind of obviously, there's the battery. Disappointingly, for a puzzle that's meant to be studied for hours to get the hang of, a little over an hour of play is offered by the inbuilt NiCd cells before the thing, rather alarmingly, flashes red all over a few minutes before shutdown. And it takes ages to charge, easily several hours. I guess in the age of rapid charge Li Ion batteries, going back to NiCd is a bit of a culture shock.

And while the little charging cradle is neat - the cubes' little metal contacts making, er, contact when the device is propped on one corner - extended play would have been possible if a simple cable attachment had been designed in.

Despite these failings, the Touch Cube represents the ambitious attempt of a toy manufacturer jumping on the 'touch' revolution that has swept through the consumer electronics industry, and for that alone, they must get a little credit.

Shortcomings aside, I really like the Touch Cube. There are a zillion websites and mobile apps devoted to helping solve the original cube, but this is the first fully electronic cube that does what it says on the tin, in a really satisfying way.

Now, if only my 5x3x3 cube could solve itself...

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