The Current

ENCORE | The Rubik's Cube's puzzling return in the digital age

The Rubik's Cube can be scrambled 43 quintillion ways and the competition to do it ever-faster is growing.

5 tips on cracking Rubik's Cube

6 years ago
Duration 1:11
5 tips on cracking Rubik's Cube

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In the 80s, the Rubik's Cube became one of the most popular toys in history. But the colourful, cubic puzzle is staging a comeback with a growing number of people obsessing over what they call "cubing."

Massive cubing competitions are pitting participants against eachother — and the clock — as they race to solve Rubik's Cube puzzles in record time.

Ian Scheffler is one of the sport's many avid competitors. 

"My real love affair with the cube, I guess you could say, began at summer camp 11 years ago when I happened to sit next to the greatest Rubik's Cube solver on the planet," Scheffler tells The Current

Scheffler has since gone on to achieve what he once dismissed as impossible — cracking the puzzle in under 20 seconds.

Marking the 40th anniversary of Rubik's Cube at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, on April 26, 2014. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Aside from playing, Scheffler writes about the game and authored a book about the puzzle's dynamic history, Cracking the Cube​.

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that despite its popularity once it hit the market, the Rubik's Cube originally struggled to find financing. 

"Everything about the Rubik's Cube that makes it so successful is what makes it a bad pitch. It doesn't have anything electronic, it's extremely hard to solve on your own, there's no pre-existing intellectual property it ties to … and yet ironically all the things that were held up as deficits are the things that make it so distinctive and successful."

Paul Hoffman of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey has designed a 7,000 square feet museum exhibition detailing the math, science and secrets of the Rubik's cube. He shares the story behind the invention of the 3X3X3 cube puzzle.

Saving the nearly bankrupt toy company that decided to back it, the Rubik's Cube took off like gangbusters as soon as it hit the shelf. 

"They just kept trying to ramp up production and ramp up production — and they could never meet demand. It was really wild."

But like most cultural products, the game eventually lost its market presence.

"They basically dropped off the face of the earth," recalls Scheffler. 

He attributes the sudden decline of the Rubik's Cube in part to what was a general lack of knowledge as to how to solve it.

"So many people got frustrated that they just gave up en masse."

But with the introduction of YouTube tutorials and the design of a more speed-friendly cube, speed cubing (which had a brief existence in 80s) has recently taken off with a fury and infused new life into the game. 

The youngest and most digital folks in the world [are here] doing this activity.- Ian Scheffler, on speed cubing

"[Speed cubing] was revitalized in the early 2000s. The first modern world championships was in Toronto in 2003, and it's happened every other year since. It's grown to the point where there are now over 60,000 members of the World Cube Association."

"That young man who sat next to me in summer camp, he and his brother helped make the World Cube Association … the FIFA of Rubik's Cube."

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

Scheffler says that although technological developments have supported the return of Rubik's Cube, it is the puzzle's analogue nature that renders it all the more attractive in the digital age.

"The Rubik's Cube company has tried to digitize the cube and never quite succeeded. It has this tactile element that is really appealing … the youngest and most digital folks in the world [are here] doing this activity."

"I think it touches on something very fundamental to the human, which is the desire to make order out of chaos."

"It's very addictive."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.