This Happened (23/08/13)

The latest in 3D printing:

Domestic 3D printing seems to occupy a curious middle-ground between ‘the next big thing’ and a pass-time for geeky enthusiasts. With, of course, enough real-world engineering kudos mixed with sci-fi potential to give it some serious credibility.

It’s still early days for the casual domestic user (if such a person materialises). In other words, it will be a while before 3D printers attain the same level of status in the home as other press-and-go technologies such as microwave ovens or DVD players. It’s also conceivable that they may only find their place alongside (or instead of) the bench-lathe out in the garage/workshop.

Whilst technology races ahead exponentially, humanity lumbers behind until another revolution on a par with the mobile phone catches the imagination and explodes (no reference to iPhone batteries intended).

Is the 3D printer the next mobile phone? Well, only if people really want to make stuff; and that stuff can compete with or beat the purchased equivalent. Unless of course we have a population at large yearning to realise the virtual objects inside their heads? Ever got that impression? I haven’t.

If you need items on the level of domestic raw-plugs and angle brackets, they are already available for pence in most hardware shops. If you want to print something as a flashy, upmarket item to make a statement, then can you afford the printer that can provide the required quality anyway?

In any case, the mobile phone took around 10 years of consumer availability before its explosion in the mid/late 1990′s. We are not there yet, by comparison.

Hoping to ease the transition and to cut out the tricky bits for non-enthusiasts are 3rd party bureau services such as the established Shapeways (for print and sell) and now the Stockholm-based Volumental, who start at the other end of the pipeline and follow it through.

Volumental’s browser-based scanning solution aims to e-assist with all of that messy 3D scanning and geometry-cleaning required to get something into the system initially. Yes – browser! It’s a service that’s not aimed at the 3D modellers amongst us, obviously, but instead would suit the vast numbers of everyone else.

Volumental's browser-based 3D scanning technology

This is where the Kickstarter drive comes in: to reduce the mesh cleaning and preparation process largely to a series of algorithms residing in software yet to be created (or just refined?) by a dedicated developer. The magic being invisible to the end user in its operation. Funds are currently being sought after to acquire some “server and processing hardware”.

Some reasonable quality input hardware is required at the consumer end (remember the saying “garbage in, garbage out”?), but theoretically you could now transition from original sculpt (for instance) to 3D print, with their proposed scan-to-print service delivering a finished object to your door. And all without any of that nasty business in-between.

You’ll need a compatible depth camera, such as a PrimeSense, Asus or Kinect that utilises the OpenNI or Time-of-Flight formats in order to make this happen of course.

It seems simple on the surface: you install the required drivers, plug in your camera, browse to the input page and scan. That’s the level of simplicity that Volumental are aiming for, requiring paradoxically a good deal of complexity behind the scene.

The site states that scan times of 30 seconds (should I assume 30+?) work best, although I have never seen 3D digitisation quality measured in terms of time before! Still, in keeping with the non-specialist angle, it works. Colour information is also captured and the mesh itself downloaded for printing on your own set up, broadening the appeal of the Volumental system significantly.

I have no idea about the proposed pricing structure, but I have taken a look at the demo meshes available on their site. And the verdict? Well, as I was expecting, the detail betrays the origins of the scanning process, hardly hi-res; though you can get away with much less than you think by utilising a decent texture map. That’s largely on-screen of course, where the decent colour data saves the process. Having checked the meshes and seen a photo of a finished colour print, the results are likely to be acceptable to the casual public at large, who let’s face it, appear to be the target audience. Outside of that I would imagine the appeal to be limited to ‘novelty’.

The weak link has to be the depth-scanning itself. The Kinect for instance was never designed for hi-def 3D digitisation, though the version destined to ship with Xbox 1 is supposedly a massive improvement on the model currently available. When that’s out, then we’ll see.

Sources: volumental, fabbaloo, theverge.