While the 3D printing revolution is clearly underway, really it has barely started. There are several printers on the market, and numerous software tools. But there are still spaces to open up. The next: 3D scanners. Because it’s easier to get started in 3D printing by copying or cloning a real-world object than by sketching it in a modeling app.
At SxSW, Makerbot chief Bre Pettis introduced the Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner, a turntable-and-laser setup that lets users digitize the 3D measurements of smallish items (8 x 8 inches or smaller). Details on the device — price, availability, and so on — were scarce. But Makerbot isn’t the only company working in this space.
A much less well-funded product may be coming from the makers of the Moedls 3D Model Viewer software. Similar in concept to the Makerbot scanner, the Mobile 3D Laser Scanner uses two small lasers (or just one, but you’ll get blank spots in your scan), a turntable, and an imaging device — in this case an iPhone — to scan items in much the same way as the Makerbot Digitizer.
The Moedls setup should run for about $350 with two little lasers and turntable. As of a few days ago, it’s a Kickstarter project.
And then there’s the interesting free-space scanner from Lynx Laboratories. Hidden in a startup arena at SxSW, I found Lynx CEO Chris Slaughter. His company has crammed a stereo camera setup and a powerful Nvidia graphic card, with custom software, into an ungainly but effective hand-held scanning appliance, the Lynx A.
The Lynx A can be used for taking accurate measurements of architectural features — that is, human-scale or bigger — or for creating 3D digitized models of items in the real world. To scan a car, for example, you would point the Lynx’s camera toward it, and then sidestep in a circle around the car while keeping the camera on the car. The software will take the imagery and your movement and build a 3D model. Lynx is also on Kickstarter.
Slaughter says that his massive scanning hardware is a temporary solution. Eventually smartphones will have the graphics capabilities to handle his software.
There will be room in the digitizing market for both the highly precise, controlled laser-and-turntable scanners, as well as free-space scanners that can handle items of any size. There will no doubt be other ways to scan physical objects. Maybe, eventually, we’ll be able to create a clonable 3D model by just glancing at an object while wearing Google glasses (and then wiggling our heads to give the camera some depth data). The point is that 3D printing hardware is not sufficient to create the 3D revolution. We need more and better tools, like digitizers.
The laser printer was introduced in 1984, but it wasn’t until Aldus shipped PageMaker for the Mac, in 1985, that the desktop publishing revolution really started. The pieces of the 3D game are, likewise, still being placed.
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