The description of ChineseCUBES couldn’t help but pique my curiosity – “An augmented reality (AR) technology… multi-sensory learning experience”. In plain English it means that real-world objects are modified, or augmented, in some way by the computer, in this case via a camera. Still not clear? OK, watch the ChineseCUBES Youtube video then come back and read the rest of the review:
The ‘cube’ theme is at the core of ChineseCUBES, and it’s all based around Chinese characters being building blocks, or ‘cubes’, that themselves don’t change, but are combined with other cubes that change their meaning and usage. The complete ChineseCubes package is only made up of 200 Chinese characters, but ChineseCUBES say that we “actually only need and use about 200 Chinese characters in most of our daily interactions” and also that these 200 characters can be combined “to form over 64,000 words and conversational phrases”. The 200 characters are arranged into Themes, each consisting of 10 character cubes. This review is based on the starter pack, which contains the first 4 Themes.
What I’m most interested to find out, is if the augmented reality feature is a fancy gimmick, or whether it has some real lasting value for the educational experience.
What You Get
The first thing that stands out about ChineseCUBES is the packaging, it really is a slick, well presented product, and it’s clear to see that they mean business. In the Starter Pack box you get:
- 40 Chinese Character Cubes
- 5 Tutor Cubes
- CD-ROM (containing the software and manual)
- Learning Pad
- Writing Pad and Pen
- Quickstart Guide
Hardware-wise ChineseCUBES can’t be faultedThe character and tutor cubes are light and durable (I threw one at a stone wall and it didn’t break). Stickers are used on the cubes to show characters and words etc. but again, they are high quality. The webcam is also very good quality, it had a focus ring and attached to an included stand magnetically. The stand also has a swing arm for adjusting the height, which worked suprisingly well. Both the camera and cubes sit on a felt mat with a rubberised base to stop it from slipping around. In addition, a thick card square is provided with a glossy side for practicing writing on with the provided pen. Hardware-wise ChineseCUBES can’t be faulted, it’s durable and I’m sure it’ll survive a classroom environment.
The attention to quality and completeness continues in the software, which comes in both Mac and PC versions, and includes Simplified and Traitional Chinese character support – no one is left out here.
Set up and Installation
After unpacking everything you need to connect the camera and install the software. You will need an optical drive to do this as the software comes on a CD. I had a quick look around the ChineseCUBES website and there doesn’t seem to be a software download available (even after logging in) – something to be aware of if you have an optical drive-less computer such as most new Apple computers and Ultrabooks. The CD contains the installer, a PDF manual, and a learning guide in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese versions.
After installing the software, make sure you are connected to the internet and have plugged in the camera before starting the application – both of these requirements are essential and the app will not work without them being met. On first run the app updates itself, after which you can then enter you account info and serial number to activate and start using it.
As ChineseCUBES relies on the webcam to operate, you need to make sure the room is bright enough. My office doesn’t have the best light and my desk faces away from the window, so I had to specially position a lamp behind the camera, so the cubes would be sufficiently bright.
Another thing to consider is the positioning of the camera and mat. The mat is 27cm wide by 47cm long (10.5" x 16.5") so you’ll need a desk with sufficient space. At first I set the mat and camera directly in front of me, by pushing my monitor as far back as it would go I was able to clear just enough space. Though I later found it worked better for me to the side where there was more space.
The first time you see ChineseCUBES work it really is a great experience. I started in freestyle mode to begin with, just to test everything was working. I grabbed 你, 好, and 嗎 from the box of 40 cubes to start with (probably the first 3 cubes everyone goes for) and placed them on the mat. A speech bubble appeared above each block displaying the Chinese characters. I had already seen the ChineseCUBES Youtube video so I knew what to do next. I pushed 嗎 into 好 and the speech bubbles merged to say “好嗎”, indicating that I had found a valid character combination. I then continued, pushing 好嗎 into 你, and watched the speech bubbles merge again, this time forming 你好嗎. Very impressive to watch.
The interface has three buttons along the bottom, Speak, Translate and Write. With 你好嗎 still positioned I pushed the Speak button. The Chinese characters changed to Pinyin onscreen and a female voice read the phrase aloud through the computer speakers. Pressing the Translate button showed the English translation of the phrase. The write button didn’t do anything, but this is because the write feature only works on individual characters and not phrases. When I separated the cubes the writing animation started above 你. After playing with freestyle mode for a while longer I went onto Learning Mode.
As mentioned above, the Starter Pack contains 4 Themes, each of which contains 10 character blocks that are in turn split into a series of levels. New characters are introduced over a series of levels before the user is tested with a challenge such as matching Pinyin and a character, or the audio of a word and the character, among others. The challenges are a good way to refresh what has been learned in the preceding levels.
The first level essentially guides the user through what we have already learned by messing about in freestyle mode. The character 好 is taught and you receive a gold coin for completing your first level. The gold coins seem to be the gamification of the software, with the number of gold coins earned can be seen on the Progress tab. Though, it would be nice if this was a bit more prominent, such as in the main learning window, so the user could easily see it and be motivated to continue.
As new characters are introduced you are prompted to try and make combinations based on what you have already learned. For instance, after already having learned the character 好, you later learn 很, and are asked to create the word “very good”. Fang Fang (方方) pops up now and again to clarify the meaning of a word or give guidance on when to use it. After learning a new character you are also prompted to practice writing it with the help of the writing animation, which can be done with the supplied writing pad and pen. Tips on stroke order ar given in the dialogue box at the top.
The course works by gradually introducing the user to new characters, which are arranged and re-arrange to make the new words. In Theme 1, the introduction of characters goes as follows: 好, 不, 好不好, 嗎, 你好嗎, 很好, 我, 我很好, 是, 我是, 你是, 謝, 謝謝, 謝謝你, 再, 見, 再見.
That’s a logical and very natural progression, and a good introduction to some basic Chinese phrases. After beginning Theme 2 you are also immediately prompted to bring into play some of the characters that were learnt in the previous theme, providing good reinforcement.
In addition to the 40 Chinese character cubes that are provided, there are also 5 ‘Tutor’ cubes. They are Speak, Write, Translate, Copy and Fang Fang.
The function of the first three Tutor cubes is straight forward enough – they take the place of pressing the onscreen buttons. For instance, to translate the onscreen Chinese you could either press the button with your mouse, or place the Translate Tutor cube on the mat. The difference being that the latter makes a character appear on screen. The function of these cubes seems directly targeted towards enticing children to use the software.
The fourth Tutor cube, Copy, duplicates a cube. The first example in the software that uses this cube is when creating the phrase 好不好. You simply touch the Copy cube against the 好 cube to create a second 好 cube. It’s a good solution to the problem of phrases with duplicated characters and works well.
The last Tutor cube, Fang Fang, as far as I can tell, just makes the character Fang Fang appear on the screen. Since Fang Fang appears automatically throughout the course there doesn’t seem a need for him. There also doesn’t seem to be much mention of him in the guide. Maybe in a previous version of the software the Fang Fang tips didn’t automatically appear, and the user had to place him onto the mat before being able to see the tips.
Let’s review the good points and also areas where ChineseCUBES could improve, before moving on to the conclusion:
- Quality – The hardware and packaging are of a really high quality and easily suitable for classroom use.
- Software Support – The software can be used on both Windows and Mac, which makes a refreshing change since most new products chose one platform over the other to begin.
- Simplified and Traditional Chinese Support – Both are supported in software, and the cubes also feature a Traditional Chinese in addition to the Simplified counterparts.
Areas for Improvement
- Software only comes on a CD and doesn’t seem to be available from the website – with lots of computers now lacking an optical drive this could be an issue.
- Lighting – You need to make sure that a light source is behind the camera so the cubes are sufficiently illuminated.
- Requires an internet connection to use – not a huge negative in this always-connected age, but when buying a physical product like this it’s not unreasonable to expect an offline mode. A textbook, for instance, would never be unavailable.
I really enjoyed testing out ChineseCUBES. At the beginning it felt a bit complicated to get going because there are so many different aspects, but the support manuals are great and the first few levels do a good job of introducing the cubes and how to use them.
While simply writing characters is a good way to become familiar with them, ChineseCUBES makes the characters into tangible objects that you can touch and pick up. It’s not just about writing the characters, but about placing them, moving them, mixing them up and finding what works.
At the beginning of the review I asked the question of whether or not the augmented reality aspect of the product would turn out to be a gimmick and have no lasting value. I don’t think that’s true. The mixture of the physical and virtual world is a good one – you place a character then watch the screen for a reaction, I can really see children and beginners finding this mechanism engaging, which in turn will motivate them to continue learning. Something which is difficult for a book to ever achieve. That said, I do think that the cubes method of learning could be adapted into a game or teaching tool that didn’t require the software aspect. If this product were used in a classroom I could definitely see the teacher developing their own ‘offline’ uses for the cubes.
While the requirement of an internet connection and login every time is a bit annoying, I can see that this would be useful for a classroom of students with multiple accounts. One student could log out and allow another student to log in and continue their game, with their progress saved – that is, if multiple accounts are supported per physical game, which is assume is the case.
The cost of the product might be an aspect that would put some people off. If you’re an individual learner then $149 ($119 on Special Offer until November 15th 2012) is a bit much to ask, unless you are really sure you want to learn Chinese. For classes, the price will be easier to justify, or a parent buying the product for their children. The booster pack, on the other hand, does seem a bit prohibitively expensive. From what I can see the Booster Pack only contains cubes, albeit 160 of them, but $299 just seems a bit high. Also, if you are already at an intermediate level, and don’t require the starter pack,
you can’t just buy the Booster Pack (more advanced levels) as you won’t have the camera. This is a real shame and it’d be nice to see ChineseCUBES break the camera out as an individual product for more advanced users to purchase separately. The camera can be bought seperately.
Overall, ChineseCUBES is a unique product that uses a hands-on approach to learning. I can see it being favoured by children due to the Tutor cubes and interactive nature, and it’s also valuable to older beginners as the logical and natural progression and introduction of characters makes learning easier. Well worth checking out.
Note: The review unit for this article was provided by ChineseCUBES. It will be donated to a Chinese Language Centre in Taiwan and I will update this post with the info.