Tackling 3D printing’s accessibility issue


3dprinter3D printing – the process of making an object of any shape from a three-dimensional digital model – has come so far away from the realm of science fiction and toward the mainstream that even President Obama in his latest State of the Union address credited it as having the “potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

While the printers themselves have plummeted in price in the last decade, large barriers to entry remain that hold the 3D printer back from the proliferation that maker enthusiasts see as its inevitable finishing point. For a start, to work up a model to send to a 3D printer requires specialist knowledge of intricate computer assisted design software.

As a solution, Los Gatos-based Sixense has launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new MakeVR 3D Modeling and Printing software.

This new idea is a pivot for Sixense, a result of coincidence and happenstance. The company was founded in 2007 by professionals from the visual simulation and entertainment industries. Its first product, the STEM System, was a pair of controllers that served as wireless tracking systems that monitored body position and hand movement within a room. The controllers were well received: an open platform, top of the line playing device for video games and virtual reality systems.

Outside of the gaming space, Sixense’s secondary interest had always been to build on the improved control of virtual world’s that the STEM controllers opened up and give anyone the opportunity to produce professional-level design without the requisite need for huge amounts of training, CEO Amir Rubin says.

MakeVR as Rubin and Sixense envisioned it, would allow someone to effectively ‘build’ a model electronically using the controller’s tactile interface, with the STEM controllers present on screen as multi-touch cursors.

As word spread of this new goal and software, members of the 3D printing community came knocking. “The number one barrier for 3D printing right now is creating models,” Rubin says. ”People said to us, with this you and your consumer will be able to model in such an easy way. This is the way forward.”

Seeing a previously unimagined overlap with a rapidly expanding market, Sixense rebuilt MakeVR last April and worked closely with groups such as Shapeways to adapt it into a program that could work alongside a 3D printer as intuitively as a word processor does alongside a desktop one. Once a model is done on MakeVR, it is sent to a nearby printer or to a 3D Printing service to produce and send back.

After prototyping the software, Rubin says he bought his three children — 11, 16 and 18 years-old — into the office as part of a long line of focus testing. With no prior knowledge of 3D printing and computer assisted design, the kids picked the program up easily. His 11 year-old daughter designed an iPhone case from scratch and she had a physical version in her hand by the next day to show off at school. Her elation clued Rubin that this could be something with very broad potential, someday.

Rubin says after watching younger people design with the MakeVR software, the “under-30s” naturalized and adapted to multi-touch technology like iPhones and iPads, he estimates the pick-up time to be about 10 minutes.

“On the other hand, old people like me, we have thousands of hours working in another environment,” Rubin says. “It’s harder.”

3D printing needs the immediacy that MakeVR brings. “Younger people now they say if you don’t grab me, if I’m not enjoying it, I’m out. I’m not going to say that we’re going to break this barrier, but this is a new take on how to grab the consumer.”

Rubin hopes to sell 5,000 license for MakeVR, which he expects to retail somewhere in the vicinity of $ 250. The STEM System controllers go for $ 300 a pair, so it remains a significant investment even if it is more accessible.

There is a sense of mystery for Rubin in this new venture. “With the 3D printing market it is in a very early stage. We are excited to be in early and we will stay here,” he says. The company is planning to launch an aggressive beta testing program, recruiting fans of its STEM controllers to try the software in hopes of converting them into MakeVR evangelists.

Sixense’s Kickstarter for MakeVR has bought in $ 50,000 in its first two days, but is only 20 percent of the way to its target. Rubin’s concern is that despite the support in building the product from the 3D printing companies, 3D printing fans have not jumped in behind it yet.

Whether or not this is because the company hasn’t done enough to differentiate its new plans from its gaming past, remains to be seen. As does whether Sixense will be the one to bridge the divide between 3D printing and the mainstream.

Even if it doesn’t cross that gap, it’s brought us one step closer at least to seeing what happens when this new means of production does eventually fall within the realm of the everyman.

[image via wikipedia]