November 22, 2013
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
November 14, 2013
From additives like trans fat to GMOs, food processing is often blamed for being the unsavory scourge behind the widespread nutritional deficiencies and overall decline of the modern-day diet. But what if you were able to process your own food? Or more specifically, 3D print it?
For Lynette Kucsma, it’s more than a half-baked idea. Kucsma, the co-founder of Barcelona-based Natural Machines is betting that, given the option, you’d load only the best ingredients into her new creation, the Foodini, a kind of meal-o-matic replicator. Though the former Microsoft employee will handily admit that the device is hardly anything close to the sci-fi synthesizing technology envisioned on popular shows like “Star Trek,” it has shown to be quite masterful at quickly and efficiently arranging various raw ingredients such as dough, sauces, purees and well-grounded meat fillings into a ready-for-the-oven meal. By experimenting with several recipes, the four-person development team found that the 3D food printer is particularly adept at preparing burgers, gnocchi, ravioli, cookies, chocolate sculptures and bread sticks—foods generally made from pasty ingredients. It won’t, however, do a meatloaf since the layered process generally only works well with materials comprised of a smooth, fluid texture. (The team’s burgers, for instance, are made from beans.)
“Its function is more like food assembly, so it’s important to not confuse what it does with actual cooking,” Kucsma says. ”It’s probably most ideal for deserts or dishes with a meat or cheese paste, like ravioli. But even then it can be useful with many different kinds of food.”
Kucsma got involved with the project after she was invited at an event to try out current Natural Machines’ chief executive Emilio Sepulveda’s cake and chocolate printer. She found it intriguing, but being a health-conscious foodie, thought a better use of the technology would be to develop it further, so that it would enable people to prepare healthier meals in a manner that’s convenient, rather than resorting to having to reach for the factory-processed packaged variety.
“I’d say people would love a eat a home-cooked meal made with nothing but the freshest ingredients, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “The dilemma is that many people feel its only worth the time and energy to whip up a big batch of something if they can continue eating the leftovers for days without getting tired of it. That’s enough so that it can deter most people from doing it.”
Take, for instance, well, ravioli. Even preparing a small serving involves rolling and cutting the dough before wrapping and sealing in the filling by hand. It’s either that or pick up a preservative-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket. So in a way, the Foodini can best be thought of as a happy medium where much of the redundant labor can be done by automation, making the process not only convenient for a simple one-and-done dinner but also a time-saver for cooking in bulk.
Kucsma emphasizes that the Foodini is unlike the type of food printing technologies often showcased to the public. Those machines, she points out, tend to be nothing more than basic garage-built contraptions merely re-purposed to work with the simplest culinary confections, such as chocolate. Whereas those raw devices often come with exposed electrical wires and moving parts, a huge contamination risk, Natural Machines’ concept is enclosed and designed to look and operate just like a common kitchen appliance. To be certified “food grade” and on par with the likes of toaster-ovens or blenders, the FDA requires that any piece of food preparation equipment comply with health and safety standards, a process, she says, the company is currently undergoing.
In redesigning a food printer from scratch, the founders wanted to ensure that their consumers identified their product more with Martha Stewart and less with MakerBot. So instead of relying on complicated operating systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), the team developed specialized software and a touchscreen interface that makes inputting recipe instructions and adjusting the settings as seamless and intuitive as using tablets or smartphones. Inside, the compartments for ingredients are comprised of five capsules, which the machine is programmed to pick out one at a time to print or, more accurately, excrete in the shape of predetermined patterns. Depending on whether it’s ravioli shells or the filling that it’s printing out at the time, each soft ingredient is squeezed out at different rates of pressure and temperatures; the machine has a built-in heater to ensure certain ingredients stay at the proper consistency. And going along with the kitchen-friendly theme, cleaning and maintenance is made simple as the ingredient capsules can be tossed into the dishwasher.
The Foodini also includes Wi-Fi so that owners can receive software updates and take part in what the company envisions as an online community of enthusiasts who interact and share recipes. (I’m imagining a popular recipe series called “Five-Ingredient Meals.”) Users can sign on to view video demonstrations and recommended recipes and to access tech support. “When we re-conceptualized the 3D printer as a kitchen-friendly technology, it was important to us that it didn’t end up becoming one of those super-specialized appliances that you use once or twice a year and the rest of the time it sits in the cabinet collecting dust,” Kucsma says. ”We wanted it to be useful enough to help prepare many types of food and for people to continuing playing with that idea.”
In the meantime, the company has already begun taking pre-orders, which start at $1,366, though the staff is still in the process of testing the models and tweaking the software in preparation for a launch they’re hoping will happen by the middle of next year.
October 30, 2013
There might have been a time when throwing on a white bedsheet with two little round holes for Halloween could pass as quite scary. However, the very nature of celebrating those “things that go bump in the night” has always been about making the supernatural as super-realistic as possible. At parties, for instance, awards for the best costume typically go to the most detailed and impressive fabrications. A costume, after all, is only as frightening as it is believable. Even haunted houses today have become extravagant and sophisticated showcases that rival some Hollywood productions.
“In the beginning, people would joke about spaghetti for brains and grapes for eyeballs,” haunted house producer Steve Kopelman told NBC News in a recent report. “Now you have animatronics [and] dramatic advances in technology … so you get the realism you couldn’t have until the last decade.”
But since we can’t all go all out like that neighbor with the Wi-Fi networked robotic zombies in his front yard, here are five high-tech suggestions for keeping up with the Uncle Festers this Halloween:
1. Meet the Ghost Drone
If your neighbor happens to be YouTube user Alton Porter, then good luck figuring out how to out-creep the locals. He recently gave everyone a preview of how he plans to greet trick-or-treaters this year when he uploaded a video showing a R/C quadrocopter drone dressed up as a flying (remote-controlled) ghost, complete with led lights for glowing eyes. And as he mentions on his YouTube page, it didn’t cost much at all—that is if don’t already own a quadrocopter, which would run you about $500.
“I was shopping at Target and saw the complete ghost hanging up on the Halloween rack for $10.00,” he wrote. “I installed the led lights. The ghost is very light.”
2. When Being Yourself is Creepy Enough
For those who are all out of costume ideas, the website thatsmyface.com has an idea that lets anyone get away with showing up at Halloween parties as just themselves—without coming off as “lame.” The startup, based in Beaverton, Oregon, offers a service in which customers can send in a photo of themselves to be used to manufacture a wearable 3D printed mask. Comprised of a material the company describes as a “hard resin composite in full 24-bit color with a matte varnish,” the $299 facial replication features holes through the eyes and nostrils and, as you can see from the video, is eerily lifelike. Customers can also order action figures of themselves and, for the extremely vain, a full bust can be printed for $2,000.
With thatsmyface.com, customers can also thoroughly freak out their friends. Surreptitiously order a mask, using a photo of a friend, and dress as that friend’s doppelgänger.
3. For When Rubber Body Parts Just Don’t Hack It
Need something more convincing than those contrived gushing wounds with rubber organs poking out? Well, there’s an App for that. NASA engineer Mark Rober has recently released iWound, a fake-wound latex insert that cleverly features a slot for a smartphone. Once placed securely inside, the smartphone’s touchscreen can create the illusion of a real-life beating heart by running a free app that plays video of the live organ in a continuous loop. The entire set-up also includes a selection of bloody stab wound T-shirts for $23.50. The iWound insert itself costs $34.50.
4. Turn Your Room Into a Horror Movie
If you’re the type who thinks spooking someone out is worth any price, look no further than the “Exorcist bed.” ScareFactory, a haunted house warehouse, packages the steel-frame bed as an elaborate fright gag setup, with an optional levitator and grip switch, for upwards of $5,000. Spastically-possessed actor is sold separately.
5. …Like a Really Scary Horror Movie
Fans of the Exorcist bed might also like to double up on the fright factor with a rigged door that creates the illusion of zombies violently trying to break in. Hi-Rez Designs sells a HD quality video panel that can be installed on any entrance to make it appear as if there is a clear window in the door; in this particular video, a vicious nurse touting a menacing syringe approaches the window from a hallway. The company also offers full prop kits ($149) that feature mechanical hands reaching through the door to enhance the effect. With gorifying your own home becoming so much easier these days, who needs to go to a haunted house?
Use the Force, But What Ever You Do, Don’t Take It This Far!
A company named WickedLasers, has taken the concept of science fiction movie props into a perhaps all-too-realistic realm. Their Spyder S3 is the first mass-market product to feature a 445 nanometer wavelength direct blue diode portable laser that projects a powerful 1 Watt beam, which is enough heat to burn skin or blind someone. For $299, anyone can start wielding one of these babies and what’s perhaps even more surprising is that the company guarantees that the Arctic Spyder S3 is “100% legal under U.S. federal law and federal safety requirements.” The company also sells a Star Wars-inspired light saber for $200.
As frightening as an ultra-realistic light saber can be, this is one case where it may just be best to stick to fake guts or simple facepaint.
October 15, 2013
If you’re waiting until 3D printers become as affordable as inkjet versions, that day has finally arrived. Well, sorta.
Touted as the world’s first $100 replicator, the Peachy Printer is quite portable, easy to use and ridiculously cheap. The idea, which began as a experiment to see whether such a device can be built using nothing more than household materials and parts, is now nearing a finished product. So, in a final push to bring “Peachy” to the masses, inventor Rylan Grayston launched a fundraising campaign on crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, initially with a modest goal of 50,000 Canadian dollars. With five days left, the project has raised over 600,000 Canadian dollars and is slated for production by July 2014.
So what’s the catch? You’d figure if there was a way to mass produce the technology at such a low price point, we’d be drowning in homemade plastic trinkets by now. The important thing to note is that the Peachy Printer isn’t a 3D printing machine in the traditional sense, in that objects are printed layer by layer based on design specifications. Instead, it relies on a process known as photolithography, wherein lasers are used to sculpt the object out of source materials, such as resin. Grayston shot a promo video that explains the somewhat complex process behind how the printer works (although he assures us that actually using it is pretty simple).
Basically, the lasers, which carve out the object, are controlled by a pair of small mirrors that continually redirect the laser’s target position. Once a scanned blueprint is uploaded, commands are sent as specifically tuned audio sound waves that alter the angle of the mirrors. To get the sculpting mechanism to work from top to bottom, the resin is placed atop a bed of saltwater, which slowly rises, lifting the material as more water is fed in through the side.
According to Grayston, allowing the liquid resin to float on water removes the need for microprocessors and other expensive parts necessary for manipulating the platform. “One way to think of Peachy is that it’s like a coffee maker, just no hot water,” Grayston told Mancave Daily. “You put water into the top and the water drains down to the bottom and makes the resin rise to the top as the object is formed. Then you pull the object out, maybe cure it in the sun for a bit to harden it best. Then repeat to make something new.”
However, there are a few drawbacks. Without a testable final product, supporters are taking a risk that the invention might not turn out to be so, say, peachy? The printer also comes disassembled, requiring the owner to piece it together themselves (Grayston assures us it can be easily done by an inexperienced assembler in about an hour). As for the 3D scanner attachment that Grayston notes is available , that’ll cost an additional $250 and requires an external camera.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be using the Peachy to print the kind of sophisticated objects like musical instruments or food that higher-end manufacturing machines can whip up. But for the trinket-lover in us, it’ll serve just fine.
October 20, 2011
Used to be that when you heard “3D,” you thought of goofy gimmicks and glasses that would go well with a lampshade on your head. Not any more. In just the past week, news articles detailed important advances made with 3D laser scans: Scientists concluded that teenage T. rex were pretty hefty. Engineers identified which parts of Venice are most at risk of sinking. And police have recreated accident scenes.
But the coolest thing happening with the third dimension involves printers. Yes, printers. A 3D printer works much like your inkjet printer does, only instead of creating a two-dimensional image on a sheet of paper, it builds a physical object by stacking one very thin layer of material on top of another. That’s the idea, anyway. But to me it’s like electricity—let’s call it magic and leave it at that.
The printers are already having an impact in manufacturing. Companies are no longer using them just to create prototypes; they’re making actual parts. In fact, it has been estimated that by 2020, half of the parts used in machines will be designed on a computer and then built by printers. And why not? Printer-produced objects are lighter, cheaper, more energy efficient, result in less waste and can be made from a wider range of materials. They’re also much easier to customize, which has led some to foresee the day when we’ll download products as we now do music, then print them out at home. But first we’ll be able to tweak them into our own special versions.
That flexibility is likely one reason some artists have started using printers to express themselves. Laurie Anderson has included a 3D printer piece in an exhibit now showing in Philadelphia. Micah Ganske is has integrated small plastic printed sculptures into his artwork, which is featured in a show opening next month in New York.
The artist needs only to provide the original design on a computer. The machine does the rest. This raises the prospect of being able to download designs an artist has made available and printing out our own 3D sculptures. That’s happening already on the website Thingiverse, which is loaded with what’s described as “open-source art.”
3D printers are making waves in medicine (prosthetic limbs) food (customized candy) fashion (the first printed bikini) and even the military. (The U.S. Army has reportedly experimented with a mobile printer that could crank out tank or truck parts on the battlefield.) Still, this replication revolution won’t really take hold until we have 3D printers in our homes, just like the PC transformed the Internet into a daily obsession.
That’s where an outfit like MakerBot Industries comes in. Started in Brooklyn almost three years ago, the company hopes to make 3D printers so affordable and personal they’ll become part of our daily lives. It sells a basic model of its Thing-O-Matic, aka the MakerBot, for under $1,000. It fits on a desktop.
MakerBot, which helped launch Thingiverse, has been a big driver in getting artists to dabble in printer sculpting. And it’s the impetus behind a new crowdsourced science project called Project Shellter, where it’s asking people to come up with a design for a shell hermit crabs can use for homes.
But the real sweet spot of makerbotting, as the process has come to be known, may be in schools. Bre Pettis, one of MakerBot’s co-founders and a former teacher, sure thinks so. His take: Let kids design their own things and then actually watch them take shape, and you’ve opened a door to technology and engineering much more personal than any Lego could ever be.
I think he’s on to something.
Prepare to be amazed
Here’s are videos that will give you a taste of what’s possible with 3D printers:
- Little Lady Liberty: Watch a mini Statue of Liberty take shape on a MakerBot.
- You can print chocolate: British scientists fulfill a chocoholic’s dream.
- Back to nature: The MIT Media lab is looking at ways to create 3D products from recycled stuff.
- Such a tool: Check out this clip on making a wrench set on a printer.
- Anything goes: Here’s a sampling of things a 3D printer can produce.
Bonus video: You don’t want to miss this BBC report on two guys who set out to make a working bicycle from parts created by a 3D printer.