How cool are Rubik’s Cubes? They are a simple puzzle with virtually infinite possibilities (there are over 43 quintillion – which is 18 zeros – permutations, but who’s counting?). They lend themselves to a variety of different skill and patience levels – people can start by solving one face at a time and work their way towards completion from there. Their appeal is reflected in their status as the best selling toy of all time, having reached nearly 400 million sold since their invention in 1974 by Erno Rubik. A few other interesting facts (via Wikipedia):
- Competitions have been held in events including blindfolded solving, solving the cube underwater in a single breath, and solving the cube with one’s feet
- The development and study of solution algorithms has been the subject of considerable effort but it took until July 2010 for it to be proven (by a team including Tomas Rokicki and Google researchers) that “God’s Number” (i.e. the minimum number of steps in an algorithm that is guaranteed to solve any possible configuration) for a 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube is 20
- The current world record is 5.66 seconds, by Feliks Zemdegs
The last bullet brings me to my reason for writing this post – I recently heard about the CubeStorm II, which set a new world record for solving a Rubik’s Cube (5.35 seconds). Created by David Gilday and Mike Dobson, it is a pretty cool system for several reasons. First of all, it is made using Legos, another entry on my short list of favorite toys. Second of all, it uses an Android smartphone as its eyes (vision capture to sense the cube’s state) and brain (algorithm optimization and actuator control). Without getting too deep into the (impressive) specifics of the robot’s design and implementation, I wanted to emphasize how great it is that we have such powerful tools that are so readily available to us. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when implementing this type of system would have required a breathtakingly expensive array of equipment; the fact that it can now be done with children’s toys and a device that the majority of people carry around in their pocket is amazing to me. This drastic improvement in hardware capability available to the general public for a relatively tiny cost, typified by the rise of smartphones like the one used in the CubeStorm II, is a huge factor in the on-going democratization of design. The world and man’s creative capacity continue to be less and less limited by the cost and scarcity of hardware, which opens the door for quintillions of possibilities. A world bounded only by our imagination sounds pretty good to me – and, like any good toy, it should excite the child in all of us.