A Dumb 3-D Printer is a Million-Dollar Idea

Smart 3-D printers are capturing the public’s imagination, but a couple of robotics engineers think there is still room for a dumb one.

2 min read
A Dumb 3-D Printer is a Million-Dollar Idea

Inkjet printing didn’t kill the market for crayons, markers, and other “dumb” drawing tools. So why not a not-smart, hand-held version of a 3-D printer? That’s the concept behind 3Doodler, a Kickstarter project launched earlier this week by WobbleWorks, a toy company in Somerville, Mass. WobbleWorks' idea is to use a pen-shaped gizmo and rolls of ABS plastic, a feedstock used in many of today’s 3-D printers, to let people draw 3-D shapes. I’m guessing the process will be somewhat meditative; you’ll have to draw slowly enough to let the plastic cool enough to support your structure; the video on Kickstarter appears to be sped up a bit. So it might not be as easy as it looks, but the minute I saw the “doodled” Eiffel Tower, I wanted to get my hands on this gadget.

Turns out I’m not alone. Earlier this week 3Doodler’s Kickstarter campaign launched with a $30,000 goal; the effort already far surpassed that goal, with more than $1.5 million in funding pledged, and that funding window stays open until March 25. Early backers are promised the gizmo in September or October; later backers have to wait until 2014.

Why does this vision of a dumb, hand-held, 3-D printing-pen so capture the imagination? It has to have helped that 3-D printing seems to have just burst out of the Maker sphere and into the broader public consciousness. Every time I turned on the radio or TV this week I heard someone waxing poetic about 3-D printing or arguing about whether or not it was somehow going to cause widespread unemployment or raise insurmountable copyright issues. So people today, at least in the U.S., have likely heard of 3-D printing, though they probably aren’t quite ready to put down a thousand bucks to bring it into their homes.

The 3Doodler, however, at $50 for early Kickstarter backers, $75 or $100 for latecomers, is a lot more accessible financially. And it's more accessible technically: you don’t have to hook it up to a computer, download software, or figure out how to operate a CAD program to start creating objects. With this going for it, it’s likely to be the tip of the wedge that pushes 3-D printing mainstream. After all, we give kids crayons before we give them computers, don’t we? (Well, we used to.)

WobbleWorks is a bit of a wacky company. Max Bogue and Peter Dilworth founded it in 2011 as a side business intended to fund their passion for robotic dinosaurs. Dilworth’s background includes robotics work at the MIT Media Lab; Bogue worked at robotics company Handy Robotics; the two met while working at toy company WowWee. WobbleWorks’ first product was Flap-itz—animatronic animal ears worn on a headband; cute for costume parties or pranks, perhaps, but not the million-dollar-idea that is 3Doodler.

There are people making fun of 3Doodler. True, the technology isn’t rocket science, all its creators did was to take readily available technology, build a simple prototype, and make a nice video that included some compelling 3-D doodles. A Russian blogger demonstrated that it wasn’t hard to put together a clunky version of the 3Doodler in 20 minutes (his artistic ability left something to be desired).

But sometimes, the technology itself isn’t the point; it’s how you imagine people using it. And I can definitely imagine myself using the 3Doodler.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.

Photo: WobbleWorks

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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