It’s a rare treat to find a technology product that is entirely innovative, wholly unique – and that I would buy in a heartbeat. Square Off, from Mumbai, is a telerobotic chessboard – a rosewood-finished game that plays against you, moving pieces around like a ghost player. You can pit your skills against the machine’s own AI brain, which has 20 difficulty levels, or online against an opponent with a Square Off board – or just the free Square Off app – anywhere else in the world.
Square Off was first designed as an automated braille chessboard for the visually impaired. But a series of crowdfunding appeals showed its market was much wider. Of course, playing chess online in various ways is well-established, and there are countless chess machines, but the imagination and engineering involved in making a real board with wooden pieces that move themselves is truly impressive. Inside the board, there’s a robotic arm with a magnet that whirs up and down and left and right at the machine’s – or the remote opponent’s – command. The board contains a network of sensors, but the only tech element of the nicely carved pieces is a metal disc in their base.
When you want to make a move, you press your piece down until you hear a beep, move and press again. As for the opposition’s pieces, there’s quite a bit of mechanical sound when they move, but it’s a smooth action. If there’s a pain point in the design, it’s when your ghost opponent takes one of your pieces. Everything seems to happen in reverse: first, the piece that’s been taken moves slowly off the board, then the conquering piece slides in to take its place. But this is a small quibble about a hot contender for the ultimate executive toy.