It might seem like I’m late to the Merge Cube party posting an article in 2019. These little augmented reality (or mixed reality if you prefer) cubes have become quite the edtech sensation in the last six months and I’ve never really mentioned them here on VirtualiTeach. So let’s start with the backstory…
I was aware of the Merge Cube before it’s launch in August 2017 and was eager to try it for myself. I even reached out to Merge to see if they would send me one to demo and cover on the site but sadly I never got a response. So when they finally released, I paid to import one from the US along with one of the purple Merge VR headsets.
Upon arrival I was a little disappointed if I'm completely honest. The headset had a great aesthetic but every time I tried to insert my shiny new iPhone X into it, the power button would get nudged and turn the screen off so I’d have to pull it back out and start again. I did test the headset with some students in the end but they tended to find it rather weighty in comparison to other mobile headsets. Personally I think that for the design, the strap isn’t quite sufficient to counteract the front-end weight. Ultimately it became another HMD on the shelves in my office that doesn’t really get used. I do still love the colour and the overall look of it though!
Then there was the cube. This little badboy looked like something straight out of Hellraiser and really is a brilliant piece of design. For those who may be unfamiliar, the Merge Cube essentially acts like a sophisticated ball of QR codes that work in conjunction with each other to act as a marker for 3D models and other augmented reality content, thus allowing you to hold these things in your hand. Take a look –
The problem I had with the Merge Cube initially wasn't the aesthetic, it was the content. The Merge Cube was being pitched as a techy toy, being sold in WalMart toy aisles and the content reflected this with simple games and experiences that didn’t offer much educational value. Sure there was “Mr Body” but ARkit had heralded far more advanced augmented reality biology content such as Insight Heart. Disappointed, I soon relegated the cube to my office shelves until I ended up giving it away at a conference a couple of months later.
By early 2018 the Merge Cube seemed a little doomed to me. Case in point - the image above was posted on Reddit around this time with the caption “Anybody else have obscene amounts of the Merge Cube that nobody wants to buy?” Then news trickled out that WalMart had slashed the price of the Merge Cube to just $1. One dollar!? Social media was flooded with images of teachers hitting Merge Cube jackpots in Walmarts across the USA. They were grabbing as many as they could and even giving them away at conferences and as end of year gifts to their students!
I was convinced that the end was nigh for Merge but it soon became clear that they were shifting their focus and putting more attention on the education market. A Facebook group sprang up and more educational content was announced. Merge were on to something – these little cubes make better educational tools than toys. Like an augmented reality phoenix, they rose once again and have built a real head of steam coming into 2019 with new experiences launching regularly and some exciting partnerships too. We’ve actually now got a whole set of Merge Cubes at JESS Dubai (in Year 6 classrooms) and they are a popular tool in the teachers’ arsenal.
So I thought I weigh in with my Top 5 Educational Apps for the Merge Cube but before we hit the main list, here are a couple of honourable mentions:
This is a clever little animal-themed painting concept but only one model comes with the free version of the app and it’s a little limiting if you have to hold your device with one hand and paint/manipulate the Cube with the other. Worth a look though.
I feel that I need to mention CoSpaces Edu. In 2018 Cospaces incorporated AR as well as VR output formats for it’s brilliant 3D creation tool. They then added Merge Cube integration, allowing users to actually build content directly for the Cube, attaching elements to each face. It really is fantastic and probably the most impactful way to integrate the Merge Cube in the classroom. So why did I leave it off my Top 5 list? Honestly I see this more as a part of CoSpaces than an app for the Merge Cube itself. It also relies on you having a Pro level CoSpaces account so it’s not something people can access directly. Nonetheless if you’re looking to bring Merge Cubes into your classrooms, no matter what subject areas you are teaching, pairing them with CoSpaces is definitely a great option.
Shapes 3D Geometry Drawing is another app that has integrated Merge Cube functionaility but like with CoSpaces, its use isn’t reliant on having a Merge Cube. You can interact with a wide range of geometric shapes either on screen or directly in augmented reality and if you have a Merge Cube, the shapes can be tracked to it. It’s another app I highly recommend and in fact I used to use this in its pre-AR days as far back as 2014. (see here)
Ok now let’s take a look at my top 5 educational apps for the Merge Cube.
I recorded a video showing all five in action and below this you will find a little more detail about each app.
Works with VR Headset: NO (Coming Soon)
I had beta access to this one and knew that it’d be popular when it launched. Using the web portal, you can upload your own 3D assets and then access them within the app tagged to the cube. It supports a range of file formats (.fbx, .obj, .stl, .dae, .blend, and .gLTF) and a 100mb file size limit. With platforms like Google Poly, SketchFab and more offering a huge range of 3D models freely, educators can use this handy app to personalise cubes for almost any lesson. You can find a guide to uploading models to the app here.
Works with VR Headset: YES
One of my absolute favourite apps for the Merge Cube brings a collection of historical artefacts into the classroom. Being able to hold and manipulate the models in your hands is fantastic and you can also stamp life-size versions in the room around you using ARkit tracking (which I must admit, does somewhat negate the need for the small Cube-tracked versions). The models are detailed and authentic and it’s a great way to bring unobtainable historical objects into the classroom for observation and evaluation.
Works with VR Headset: YES
When I originally got the Merge Cube, one of my favourite experiences was within the Things app – it let you pull up a skull or human heart model. This app offers a wider range of biology-themed models with the brain, heart and lungs on offer and multiple layers for the models that you can switch between to delve deeper into the organ. A worthy addition to the biology teacher’s arsenal!
Works with VR Headset: YES
I’ve mentioned before that there’s a deluge of Astrology themed AR on mobile devices but there’s something that just works when you get to hold the universe in your hands. With the Sun tagged to the Cube, the student can rotate and inspect the various planets as they rotate in their orbits. Clicking them provides a small nugget of information too. A great resource for young scientists.
Works with VR Headset: NO
Produced with renowned palaeontologist Jack Horner, this app is a great example of AR that is more than just a model. Users get to learn about dinosaurs as they excavate bones from the Cube using a set of authentic tools. The skeletal pieces are then collected and combined within a museum section. Everything from Horner’s narration to the UI to the models themselves is excellent and this type of interactive content demonstrates just how effective the Merge Cube can be.
To find out more about Merge VR and the Merge Cube, visit their site at mergevr.com
To explore more apps for the Merge Cube, visit the Merge Miniverse here - miniverse.io