Rubik's Cube Revival in a High-Tech World

Jan 9, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. – This past holiday season, millions of people bought video games, iPads, and other high-tech gadgets. But many are still playing with a toy that's been around for more than 30 years: the Rubik's Cube. The puzzle that challenges players to align a single color on each side first went on the market in 1980. As Brenna Angel reports, a new generation of players is pushing the limits of the Rubik's Cube using modern technology.

When Lucas Etter's grandparents bought him a Rubik's Cube while he was visiting their retirement home, it was mainly to pass the time. The puzzle can take a "long" time to figure out. Fast forward two years, and that past time is now an obsession.

Ten-year-old Lucas is a "speed-cuber." The Lexington fifth-grader uses memorized sequences or algorithms to solve the 3-d puzzle in a matter of seconds. Shortly after getting his first cube, Lucas turned to Internet videos to find the best method.

"You Tube has a lot of random stuff but it does have good stuff too," he says.

Sitting around their kitchen table, Lucas' father Paul and mom Dana can remember a Rubik's Cube craze when they were kids.

"No one could ever solve it, so we either pealed the stickers off or took it apart. But nowadays when you but a cube it comes with the solution," says Paul Etter.

"I can't even solve it with the solution that it comes with," laughs Dana Etter. "And Lucas will sit down with me sometimes and try to give me a tutorial."

Lucas is getting pretty fast. At a competition in November, he reached a new personal best for solving the cube: 12 seconds.

"I want to get the world record," he says.

At the Melbourne Winter Open in June, Feliks Zemdegs solved the cube in just 5.66 seconds. Video of his triumph was posted to YouTube.

"I look at these kids and it's quite incredible what they do," says Tyson Mao, co-founder of the World Cube Association, which organizes speed cubing competitions.

Mao believes that anyone, regardless of age or intelligence, can learn how to solve the cube. And with the growth of competitions and web videos, the Rubik's Cube is still a cool, inexpensive toy to play with.

"I think YouTube is probably one of the biggest pieces in terms of the spread of the Rubik's Cube. It's really allowed the globalization of the Rubik's Cube and it's really made it accessible to everyone."

Mao has produced marketing videos for the Rubik's Cube and he also helped teach Will Smith how to solve the puzzle for a scene in the 2006 movie "The Pursuit of Happyness." Mao was asked if using videos to learn the technique takes away from the specialness of figuring out the cube on your own. He doesn't think so.

"I would say that if you look at Rubik's Cube solvers even dating back to the early 90s, a lot of these people who are active today did not solve the Rubik's Cube on their own."

The resurgence of cubing has led to the development of an educational program for teachers and knock offs from China that actually move faster in competition than the original Rubik's Cube.

Lucas is pushing himself to get as fast as he can, practicing two hours a day. And he's using another piece of technology to shave seconds off his time: An app on his iPod that generates scrambles for his Cube.