If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above. But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.
Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :
Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter. By rearranging the blocks, words are formed. The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word. Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface. Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now. For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.
When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk. It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:
Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set. Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display. But it is available now and the price is reasonable. Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed. But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.
Is this the future of language games? That would be a pretty bold prediction. But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology. Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games. They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.
A colleague of mine, Kathy, and I have been discussing ways to create a language sandbox game. This idea would be to create blocks with words on them that somehow interact in a way that demonstrates grammaticality.
Siftables work like colored blocks, but they can interact.
Kathy’s oldschool. She’s been experimenting with blocks of wood painted different colors which students can manipulate. Great for kinesthetic learners! We discussed cutting them into puzzlepiece shapes so that each block only “fits” other words according to grammatical rules. At first, it seems like it would be possible to make nouns with square tabs that fit into square slots on verbs, and so on. However, as complexity increases, this becomes exponentially more difficult. Structures as complex as nouns modified by multiple adjectives would be prohibitively difficult.
What if a computer application could be developed that would replace the wood blocks with word tiles that could be manipulated with a mouse (or an interactive whiteboard!)? Could the tiles snap together and repel each other like magnets according to grammar rules? Could words be tagged for part-of-speech automatically within the application? Could different categories of words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, specifiers, etc.) be added and deleted with the check of a box? Could students add their own tiles seemlessly into the pile? Clearly, some intelligence would be required of the application to implement all of these features.
Siftables react to each other. Imagine a word on each one.
As I was kicking all of this around, my friend Mike at Ohio University pointed me to siftables, which seem to be the synthesis of both ideas. Rather than try to describe these brilliant little devices, watch the TED Talks video.
Not only could these little devices fit the bill perfectly, the way they interact could inform interactions in the language sandbox I’ve been envisioning. Until we’ve all got pockets full of siftables to pass out in class, my $50 wiimote-based interactive whiteboard will have to do. In the meantime, I’m hoping that having students drag word tiles across the screen will work almost as well for kinesthetic learners.