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3D printing comes to phones and games at MakerBot's first hackathon

Kevin Lee | April 12, 2013
3D printers have gotten to the point that they can print just about anything you can imagine (yes, even food). But while we've been focusing on better machines and more insane prints, you may have forgotten about the most important step that magically turns a digital file into a physical object--the software.

"[T]he hardware has become inexpensive enough so that it's getting into average people's homes," said Tony. "Hackers now have easy access to this, so there's been an explosion of software to support that."

Dream projects

Before the coding contest began, I got the chance to speak with the developers about some of the wildest 3D printing program ideas they had.

Search applications were on the minds of many of the developers on hand. Nemil Dalal, a programmer for the start-up Dreamforge, wanted to create a search engine that lets you draw a shape and search by it. For example, draw a triangle, and a program would look up models with triangle-shaped elements. Meanwhile, another programmer, Allister Mckenzie, suggested a Pandora-like algorithm that looks at your printing history to predict what kind of shapes you like to print.

Some other programmers wanted to make 3D printing a mobile-only affair. Alex Tanchoco, an IT guy for a hospital by day, imagines a mobile app that directly interacts with Thingiverse and can command the MakerBot Replicator 2 to print objects remotely, sort of like how Apple's AirPrint technology works.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious concepts I came across was from Brian Kehrer, a creative technologist from Pysop and former co-founder of Muse Games. As one of the most experienced programmers I met at the event, Brian was already hard at work when I sat down to talk to him. His idea was to bring the Thingiverse API into the Unity game engine and bring 3D modeling to games.

"Basically, what I want to do is pull assets from Unity directly to STL format [the stereolithography file type used by 3D printers] and upload it to Thingiverse," Brian explained. If it works out, Brian says he could use the same programming wrapper he put around the Thingiverse API to pull basically anything he wants from any Unity application, which could include characters models or any art asset from inside a Unity game.

"The best use of 3D printing in gaming I have seen is Dungeons and Dragons [figurines], because you can just craft you own characters," Brian continued. "So you're not just limited to goblins and dwarfs, or whatever comes in a box."

MakerBot's programmers also had their own ideas in mind. While I was talking to Tony, he showed me how he was planning to use the Leap Motion controller to design objects by tracing them in midair. In the next seat over, another MakerBot programmer was working on a mind-blowing project to use the Oculus Rift as a 3D display that allows you to design your creations in a virtual-reality environment.


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