LAS VEGAS — The clatter of 200 Rubik’s Cubes twisting in unison filled the ballroom at the Riviera hotel and casino here Saturday as Riley Woo, 15, stepped to the stage.
Shick shick shick shick shick.
He took a few moments to study a jumbled cube, then pulled a blindfold over his eyes and started to twist.
Shick shick shick shick shick.
After many hurried flicks of the wrist, Riley lifted his blindfold and smiled. He had solved the puzzle, in a total time of just over 2 minutes, 34 seconds; not bad. Across the table, his father stopped filming and gave him a thumbs-up.
“I just memorized each color, and then based on that, like, you already know how to solve it, based on where each color is," Riley said afterward.
“A ton of algorithms, right?" said his dad.
“Yeah, not a lot of math," Riley agreed. “Just algorithms." (The difference, he said, was between formulas you can memorize and equations you have to figure out.)
In the 38 years since the Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik invented his cube, it has alternately been regarded as an object of fun, art, mathematics, nostalgia and frustration. Some credit its enduring fame to its universality — it requires no instructions or cultural context — and some to its complexity. What other child’s toy could so befuddle an MIT grad student?
It is an object that “sets its own challenge," Rubik said via email. “Anybody blessed with the basic human senses can instantly ‘get it.’ "
As a primary-colored offspring of the 1980s, the cube will forever be linked with fads like Pac-Man, neon leggings and Cyndi Lauper. Unlike those fascinations, the Rubik’s Cube is enjoying a resurgence of popularity and, in a world increasingly run by engineers and algorithms, relevance.
“You can use Rubik’s Cube to teach engineering, you can use it to teach mathematics, and you can use it to talk about the interplay between design and engineering and mathematics and creativity," said Paul Hoffman, president of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, where an exhibit planned for 2014 will honor the 40th anniversary of the cube. “I’m hoping the Rubik’s Cube will excite a new generation and get them into engineering."
Judging by the crowd at the 2012 World Cube Association’s U.S. National Championship over the weekend in Las Vegas, that excitement may be building. While a few older cubing icons, like Lars Petrus, the 1981 Swedish champion and creator of the Petrus Method (hint: build a 2-by-2-by-2 corner, then expand it outward), were on hand, nearly all the competitors were born decades after the cube’s heyday.
And while most seemed to consider it a hobby rather than occupational training, the mental benefits did not escape them.
“The maths of the cube, like group theory, don’t really apply to many things," said Thom Barlow, 24, a programmer from Manchester, England, who develops systems for solving the cube as a hobby. “But it teaches you how to practice something. Your brain starts to realize, ‘Oh, I need to work on this,’ and that’s how you get better."
A many-sided tale
More than a story of puzzle fanatics or math geeks, the cube’s revival is a many-sided tale involving nostalgia, the Internet and the actor Will Smith.
Fifteen years ago, the cube “was in the closeout bin," said Joe Sequino, a spokesman for Winning Moves, the company that shares cube-manufacturing responsibilities in America with Hasbro. Despite selling more than 350 million units in the early 1980s, the cube had long since passed into memory for all but a handful of hard-core puzzlers.
But with the advent of Web video, fans got an opportunity to share their solving strategies. A new generation of puzzlers started catching on, and in 2004, a group calling itself the World Cube Association held the first speed-cubing tournament in more than 20 years, attended by 89 participants. It has since become an annual event, with about 300 competing in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, children of the 1980s began seeking out cubes for their own offspring — who, unlike their parents, were more likely to enjoy a fruitful relationship with the puzzle thanks to the online resources. In some places, the cube is now a schoolyard fad.
In 2006, Hollywood delivered the final pop-culture push: Will Smith’s brilliant but hard-luck character in “The Pursuit of Happyness" solves a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes after seeing the toy for the first time.
“That Rubik’s scene was in the trailer, and it blew up from there," Sequino said in an email. “It was the perfect confluence of events, with the movie and with a new generation 27 years later getting turned on to the cube."
Sales of the cube, which were negligible in 2000, peaked in 2008 at 15 million globally, and have leveled off since then. Recent years have seen the arrival of more challenging cubes, with as many as six, seven or even 10 squares across, as well as odd shapes, like triangles or a dodecahedron.
In the past 14 months, Rubik’s Cubes have been solved for the first time in space and atop Mount Everest. In 2011, a speed-cuber took the top prize in “Sweden’s Got Talent" by, among other things, solving one while blindfolded. The American speed-cuber Anthony Michael Brooks — known for his one-handed solving — stars in a new Volkswagen commercial called “You Can’t Fake Fast."
As part of its cube exhibit in 2014, the Liberty Science Center plans to build on its roof a 35-foot-tall cube made of lights that people can manipulate with their cellphones; it will be visible from Manhattan. Also on hand will be a $2.5 million cube made of diamonds, a giant walk-in cube where visitors can explore the inner workings of the puzzle, and a wandering flock of cube-solving robots.
Not that you have to be a budding engineer to enjoy all this. “Twisting the cube and getting faster at it, it’s a good feeling," William Boards, 17, soon to be at Southern Methodist University, said while fiddling with a cube at the Riviera. “I don’t get that big a mathematics boost from it, but it’s a good healthy competition."