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A recent paper published in Developmental Science reinforced how tactile experience is important to learning in the developing brain. The experiment looked at how toddlers in a high chair learned the names of novel (edible) substances. Those who were allowed to get their hands dirty, quite literally, exploring the texture of the different samples, picked up the names more quickly and remembered them longer.

How could this apply to the world of video games? Games are drawing wide interest as a tool for both learning and assessment, as I’ve written about here and here. But while they engage the senses of vision, hearing, and hand-eye coordination, they usually have left out the sense of touch. Until now.

YouTube video

CogCubed is a video game startup that uses Sifteo Cubes, an interactive game system developed at MIT that consists of a set of small cubes that look like tiny TV sets, each with a screen. When you move, stack or tap the cubes they communicate wirelessly and the image on the screen changes in response. This system is known as a “tangible user interface,” a takeoff of “graphical user interface,” which is the term for the icon and window image navigation we are all familiar with from most computer operating systems.

The thought is that interacting with the cubes in three dimensions will be more engaging for both children and adults than using a keyboard, mouse, or other controller. According to CogCubed founder Kurt Roots, TUIs have been shown to be easier to learn than traditional GUIS, and they also tend to increase problem solving behaviors and improve spatial cognition.

CogCubed has created a game called Groundskeeper that looks a little bit like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The company holds several patents relating to the capture and analysis of behavioral information while players are interacting with the game system.In a pilot study at the University of Minnesota, the game demonstrated surprising power to diagnose ADHD as people play. It could accurately detect the condition 75% to 78% of the time, an improvement over other existing methods. The success is not surprising given the level of detail: the system takes note of what the player is doing every one-tenth of a second for 30 minutes, for 30 different variables.

Clinical trials are continuing; CogCubed is pursuing FDA approval as a medical device to diagnose, and eventually treat, not only attention disorders, but other conditions affecting what is called “executive functioning” in the brain: anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Clearly this is a growing area of research; how long do you think it will take before these devices and games are part of mainstream classroom practice?

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