Russian programmers develop a Rubik's Cube-type console (PHOTOS + VIDEOS)

Cubios Inc.
A startup founded by IT entrepreneur Ilya Osipov from Nizhny Novgorod, and based on an idea from his son Savva, has already raised $4.5 million in investment and has $39 million in pre-orders from global distributors. We tested the gadget to find out why it’s so popular.

I’m holding a small cube weighing no more than 400 grams; on each side are four small video screens. Each depicts various food items; the character Om Nom from the mobile puzzle game Cut The Rope is on one side. By rotating the cube, I am able to move the food. My task is to feed Om Nom with goodies, without which he will die, the ultimate goal being to make a pizza from the ingredients and serve it to the little green monster.

The game is addictive: the fusion of physical movements with video game mechanics is an entirely new sensation. Osipov began to develop the WowCube gaming system in 2016.

Back in 1999, Ilya, together with fellow student Mikhail Iosilevich, launched the local portal NN.ru. Then, in 2013, he sold it to Hearst Shkulev Media for $2.8 million and moved to the United States. Since then, he has launched the educational platform i2i Study, a resource for learning foreign languages from native speakers, and, together with entrepreneur Yevgeny Gnutikov, created the NumBuster! caller identification app. He has also registered dozens of other patents and inventions.

Ilya taught his son Savva programming from early childhood. At the age of 12, the latter suggested his dad should create a game console in the form of a Rubik’s Cube with screens instead of colored stickers, allowing game objects and characters to be moved around from screen to screen.

Ilya 3D-printed the first prototype at the end of 2016 and, having invited hardware engineer Semyon Orlov in as a co-founder, launched his startup in 2017. In early September 2021, WowCube raised $4.5 million. Investors estimated the project at $25 million, and since the start of 2021 the company has received pre-orders for 155,000 consoles, worth almost $39 million, from distributors worldwide.

WowCube is essentially made up of eight independent modules with individual chips. Each module can be detached from the cube, and will continue to operate autonomously. The console has an operating system that controls all the modules and synchronizes the position of the screens relative to each other when rotated.

The console is controlled not only by touching the screen, but by manipulating the cube itself. Rotating or tilting it lets you move to a menu or control in-game characters or objects. Tapping three times opens the selected app, while shaking returns the console to main-menu mode. The shakes and taps can be as soft or strong as you like – over time, the smart system adapts to the owner to detect even the slightest movements.

Currently, the cube contains no more than 20 games, most of them puzzles in the style of Cut the Rope or 2048, in which the player guides a character through a maze, creating new paths with the help of the cube, or analogs of Arkanoid, a classic block-breaker game.

The console also offers a more advanced version of the original Rubik’s Cube, with varying difficulty levels and tips for novices and players who get stuck.

What’s more, WowCube comes with standard widgets, such as a timer, and various screensavers. The device can be connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone, TV or smart speaker.

This allows it to show the weather forecast, likes and private messages on social networks, the Bitcoin rate and other useful data. And, says Alexey Stepanov, the startup’s partner and distributor relations manager, WowCube can be used as a game console paired with a TV or smartphone.

That’s not all. WowCube also lets you download interactive children's stories and comics, where the characters interact with the screen movements. The cube has great potential in the educational sphere, believes Stepanov.

“It can be used to help teach mathematics, memorize the chemical formulas of molecules, and train kids how to code through special programs,” explains Stepanov.

In his words, the console is aimed mostly at teenagers, although polls by the company itself indicate that WowCube is currently most popular among the 25–34-year-old audience.

“Whether they want to buy the console for themselves or their kids is a big question. But unlike a smartphone, this toy does not focus the gaze on one particular point. The child holds it at a distance and develops not only coordination skills, but also spatial thinking. On top of that, the cube is practically unbreakable. It can be separated into all eight faces, and each will work. If the child damages or loses one of the modules, you can simply buy the missing part,” explains Stepanov.

WowCube already has its own app store for Android and iOS, where you can download things via your phone directly into the cube. The developers are also working on a system of tools to help other coders create skins for apps and games, and build their own apps in different programming languages.

The working prototype of WowCube has a battery life of four hours; Stepanov explains that the company is working on versions with a more powerful charge.

At present, WowCube is being prepared for mass production in China, with a view to going on sale in the spring of 2022 on Kickstarter, and later on Amazon and other platforms. According to Stepanov, the startup has already been approached by distribution chains, primarily in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Europe, Asia, South America and Australia.

The kit will include the cube itself, a charging dock, a USB-C cable, a charger and a gift voucher for the WowCube app store. The working version of the console will feature 12–18 built-in games, and the app store will be constantly updated.

In addition, owners will be able to buy a cover and special bumpers to protect the cube from damage if dropped.

WowCube is versatile and has potential in a range of business areas, says Nikita Surkov, head of distance selling at the logistics company ALIDI and an expert on e-commerce in Russia.

For example, it could be used to display the latest stock and currency prices, place restaurant orders or help learn foreign languages. In the gaming industry, however, WowCube will face tough competition.

“As a standalone gaming platform, WowCube will not survive in the market. If the platform is not constantly updated, it will become a one-time product. In this case, income will be from pre-orders, but not from additional sales. WowCube could occupy a niche in a narrow gaming segment, for example, puzzles, tests or scanwords, but for further product development top gaming studios will need to be on board. It’s not known whether developers will be willing to change their games enough to fit the cube format,” says Surkov.

Mikhail Shagin, a developer at the Nizhny Novgorod-based game studio FiftyTwo, described the platform as niche, but its originality will help to find its audience.

“I think the optimal strategy would be to create some games funded by WowCube that reveal all the console’s features in full. There shouldn’t be a sense that the gameplay has been adapted for unusual controls. Players need to feel it was intended that way, and that no other platform can deliver such a gaming experience,” Shagin explains.

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