David Merrill, working with Jeevan Kalanithi and (for the audio engine) Josh Kopin, wowed audiences at the TED conference with his Siftables interactive blocks. These strike me as what the Audiocubes have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to be — physical objects that react to the proximity of other objects, allowing you to manipulate music and media by moving around tangible blocks. Siftables are gifted with multiple expressive controls (tilt helping them break the plane of the surface), and intelligent screens that make them more adaptable and provide more visual feedback.

The music sequencer is very cool, though I think it’s actually the Scrabble-like game that may be the winner among the demos. But while TED celebrates all things cool and futuristic for their easily-digestible novelty, sometimes I think the most important design achievements are as significant in their shortcomings as their successes. Siftables raises some important questions. Sure, you can now use two hands, as opposed to the single mouse pointer. But do those same tangible blocks actually limit the kinds of interactions you can have, even compared to a traditional UI? Does it sound any different/ And note that — a little bit of tilting aside — the interface is still essentially two-dimensional. I’m personally really stumped by the question of how you can make a successful three-dimensional controller. Yet three dimensions is how all of us interact with space and movement daily. Maybe it’s the fact that we do so much of this, comprehend movement so richly, and take it for granted, that makes mapping those gestures so challenging.

That’s not a criticism of the project – or a claim that I can do any better. On the contrary, I think it’s important to do this sort of work because it can raise those kinds of questions. We’re gifted as a generation to try out and test these ideas with flexibility that was never before possible — and the intelligence built into these objects shows the potential of that power.

More of Siftables after the jump. And it’s well worth checking out David’s other projects, too – when I last ran into him, he was showing off the totable, Linux-powered Audiopint sound-processing box. Oh, yeah — and he’s the face control for guitar guy!

Siftables Music Sequencer from Jeevan Kalanithi on Vimeo.

Siftables project page

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