Hip To Be Square

Though it might seem an '08s relic, Rubik's Cube is on the rebound, helped by a cameo in a new hit movie

December 19, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

Rubik's rises again.

The multicolored cube that swept the nation when it was first released in 1980 is surging in popularity, buoyed by a cameo in last weekend's No. 1 movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, and a renewed interest in back-to-basics toys. Barbie dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are hot - no batteries or instruction manuals required.

But only the Rubik's Cube is featured in Happyness, in which Will Smith's character solves a cube during a cab ride with a Dean Witter executive he is trying to impress. After the investment executive goes into spasms trying to solve the cube, Smith takes the toy from him and says he can do it. "No one can," says the executive.

Smith's successful cube-solving lands him an internship that's an opportunity for a better life for him and his son. The film is set in 1981, one year after the cube was released in America. In its first three years on the market, more than 100 million Rubik's Cubes were sold. Another 150 million have been sold since.

The cube never wholly went away. But now it's being discovered by a new generation. Hasbro Inc., which distributes the Rubik's Cube, says sales were up 73 percent in 2005 and are expected to be up another 80 percent this year. And an electronic version of the cube will go on sale next summer.

While The Pursuit of Happyness is expected to give the cube a bump - a product placement that Hasbro did not solicit nor pay for - there are other reasons for the Rubik's revival. The generation that grew up in the '80s is having children and purchasing toys it played with 20 years ago for those kids. Also, in an era where video game systems can run $600, the $10 cube can be an appealingly low-tech alternative toy.

"It provides balance in the toy box," said Adrienne Citrin, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association. "We see so many electronic and high-tech gadgets. This is a swing back to basics. It's something people can understand."

The cube is in high demand at Toys "R" Us, though the retailer won't disclose specific sales figures. Spokesman Bob Friedland said the toys that are coming back were popular for a reason - they're undeniably fun to play - and that hasn't changed.

"A lot of it is really just the fun of the toy," Friedland said. "What might be classic to an adult is new to a child."

Erno Rubik created the cube in Budapest, Hungary, in 1974. A lecturer in interior design, Rubik wanted to create a puzzle more challenging than any in existence. But he never gave any thought to producing it on a mass scale. He just wanted to share it with friends.

It was such a hit, though, that a manufacturer was enlisted. The first Magic Cubes, as the toy was then called, hit Budapest toy stores in late 1977. Just as today, the twistable cube had six sides, each with nine movable pieces. The pieces were grouped into six colors - white, red, yellow, orange, blue and green.

The cube has more than 43 quintillion possible configurations - actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 - but only one possible solution. Books and Web sites, which weren't around to help players in 1980, demonstrate how to solve the cube in mind-numbing detail. Speed-cube associations have taken form in the past few years. With them, the world record for solving the cube has been broken repeatedly.

The current world-record holder is Toby Mao, 17, of Burlingame, Calif., who this past August solved the cube in 10.48 seconds. Mao's older brother, Tyson, is the founder of the World Cube Association and is best-known for solving the cube blindfolded. After looking at a scrambled cube, he can put on a blindfold and solve it in less than two minutes.

The Pursuit of Happyness producers hired Tyson and Toby Mao to teach Will Smith how to solve the cube. Smith was a quick study, Tyson said; indeed, on The Oprah Winfrey Show last month Smith solved the cube in two minutes (though he wasn't blindfolded).

"He's a very smart guy and a nice person as well," Tyson Mao said of Smith. He said the actor was insistent on solving the cube himself in the movie. "We thought we could maybe fake this or fake that, but he would have none of it. He wanted to genuinely learn how to solve it."

Tyson Mao says he didn't solve the cube until 2003. Now he does it in less than 13 seconds, and he runs clinics at Stanford University summer camps teaching kids how to solve it. He says most people can learn in two hours.

Hasbro points to several factors in explaining the cube's revival. The Internet has enabled cube enthusiasts like the Maos to connect to each other and form cubing communities. And the increased interest in brain training has also benefited the Rubik's Cube, said Hasbro spokeswoman Pat Riso.

"With our aging population, folks are interested in not only keeping their bodies in good shape but their minds as well," she said. Forbes reported that Hasbro will sell 3 million Rubik's Cubes this year, but Riso would not confirm that figure.

The cube hasn't changed since its introduction, but a spin-off product called Rubik's Revolution will be released next summer. Details on this electronic cube have not been released - but when it does come out, it probably won't be long before the Maos and other cube fans find a solution.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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