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The return of the cube -- and the frustration

December 30, 2006|Stephen Kiehl | Baltimore Sun

Rubik's rises again.

The multicolored cube that swept the U.S. when it was first released in 1980 is surging in popularity, buoyed by a cameo in the recent hit 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 an executive he is trying to impress. After the 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 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 the U.S. In its first three years on the market, more than 100 million Rubik's Cubes were sold. An additional 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% in 2005 and are expected to be up an additional 80% this year. An electronic version will go on sale next summer.

Although "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 revival. The generation that grew up in the '80s is purchasing toys it played with 20 years ago for its kids. Also, in an era when 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 Assn. "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.

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 websites, which weren't around to help players in 1980, demonstrate how to solve the cube.

The world-record holder is Toby Mao, 17, of Burlingame, Calif., who in August solved the cube in 10.48 seconds. Mao's older brother, Tyson, is the founder of the World Cube Assn. 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.

"Happyness" producers hired Tyson and Toby Mao to teach 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).

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