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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.

The actual programs

Clearly there was no shortage of imaginative ideas, but enough with the pipe dreams. Let's talk about the actual projects I saw.

One team consisting of three R/GA employees (Robert Carlsen, Sune Kaae, and Laird Popkin) created a Nike+ activity visualizer. At the moment, the application can access your weekly exercise data and print that activity as a physical bar graph.

The most interesting thing about it, though, is that you can actually see a physical representation of activity set across time. When you look at it in person, you can see the parts of the days when you're most active, while the extreme drop offs correlate with your time spent sleeping. Best of all, viewing it from the side will actually make it match up almost perfectly with the activity log on the Nike+ app.

"The most amazing thing about this is it's a personal print that represents me," R/GA's Robert Carlsen told me. The other team members I spoke to said that this sort of printed visualization could be expanded to show other data sets just like some of the amazing web visualizations we've seen on GeekTech.

The Lithogram team consisting of Nemil Dalal, Arian Croft, Evan Farrar, and Paul Kaplan decided to one up digital image post-processing (think Instagram) with 3D fabrication. The team managed to get a smartphone to turn an image into a 3D-printable file. You can further tweak the file with texture filters like stained glass or gaussian blur--basically, your typical Photoshop texture filters.

In other words, the program basically lets you turn a flat digital image into a textured template that you can use as a stencil to create an impression on paper. It might be a really roundabout way to making custom lithographic art, but if you have kids, it could make for a really fun art project.

When asked how he would improve the program in the future, Paul said the prints are too thin to hold up to wear and tear, and that they need to be thicker to really achieve enough detail for any real photographs--as was the case for the nose-less print of Grumpy Cat.

Meanwhile, Brian managed to pull off some technical wizardry by taking objects from inside a Unity engine and exporting them as a STL file that a 3D printer can turn into a physical object. In addition to this feat, Brian created a mobile modeling app that allowed him to manipulate the object on an iPad. In his demo, Brian took a simple cylinder object and turned it into an elaborate wine glass-shaped vase by poking around the edges to thin out sections while blowing out others. From there he could upload it directly to Thingiverse.


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