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.
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Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.