Sifteo and Soma

Sifteo CubesIn the first of a series of articles on thinking skills Sifteo have looked at spatial reasoning.  It is not meant to be an academically rigorous evaluation of the impact of Sifteo on this particular skill but it does a good job of showing the importance of spatial reasoning and where Sifteo fits into this.  As thinking skills are something I am interested in and I have recently produced some resources on the use of the Soma Cube in the classroom which I also use to develop spatial reasoning skills I thought it would be interesting to think about the old and the new together.

Sifteo Cubes are something I hope do very well as I am eagerly waiting them to reach the market so that I can use them with children and develop software for them.  They are somewhere between the physicality of the Soma Cube and the virtuality of the IPad.  A set of little touch screen cubes that communicate with each other and a computer to run downloadable games and puzzles. 

As any of the students I have taught in thinking skills sessions will know I love spatial puzzles.  This was never more evident than when I sat for hours, burning my fingers on hot glue, making 20 Soma Cubes out of 540 little cubes so that we could explore the challenge that once fascinated a large section of the readership of Scientific American.  These 27 little cubes stuck into defined shapes can form a cube or a myriad of other shapes.  However aiming for a predetermined shape such as on Soma Bingo is a mind straining feat. 

If Sifteo are lucky they will pick up something of the fascination that the Soma cube had when it was first described.  Martin Gardner in The Colossal Book of Mathematics recalls how thousands of readers contributed new shapes and many commented on how it had eaten up their leisure time as they set themselves new challenges.

Reading the Sifteo blog post it was the following sentence that made me think of Soma.

“Children and adults can manipulate the cubes to understand the qualities that the mappings represent and experiment with the designer’s rules for how they relate to each other.” Sifteo Blog.

This idea of manipulating cubes and seeing how they relate to each other is obviously an intrinsic part of Soma.  Watch a child (or an adult) start using Soma and at first you will see a quite clumsy trial and error approach.  With familiarity, though, you see the experimentation begin to form clear ideas on how the pieces relate.  Awareness builds of which pieces are most likely combined to form key parts of the final shape.  Dead ends are reached less often as the puzzler develops a “feel “ for when the remaining pieces just can’t work together.  The original creator of the Soma Cube, Piet Hein, clearly had well developed spatial reasoning skills.  He defined the pieces and then worked out if they could fit into a cube.  All while being in a quantum physics lecture.  Clearly he had multitasking skills too.

As much of a masterpiece of simple complexity that Soma is, it is only single purpose.  It is in this flexibility of purpose and the exciting possibilities that dynamically changing pieces have that attract me to Sifteo.  True, we could have all of this on a screen but this is not spatial in the same way.  Children have plenty of practice at visualizing 3 dimensions as represented on a 2 dimensional plane (many computer games).  In the same way that on screen versions of Soma cannot hope to replicate the tactile and spatial elements of the physical puzzle my hope is that Sifteo will bring physicality to on screen activity.  The idea of a piece of the puzzle changing depending on its spatial position relative to the other pieces or to which way is down may open up whole new genres of puzzles.  Sifteo is right at the beginning of its introduction to the world yet looking at some of the videos for it on their shows some amazing potential. Having made the very wise decision to open up the software development for Sifteos there will hopefully be a wide variety of imaginations going to work on creating learning activites unlike anything else. 

I don’t think any new concept needs to push anything else out.  There will always be a place for the low tech purely physical puzzles as well the activities and problems completed on a screen.  Sifteo holds great promise to occupy a middle ground that with well chosen software can bring about a whole new way to develop skills such as spatial reasoning.  Here’s hoping that Sifteo lives up to its promise and makes it to the point where I can actually get hold of some.