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Making the Virtual Real

As we move into the fabrication future, we'll see a surprising cross-over between the skills of virtual world designers and the skills of designers of physical objects.

We're all familiar by now with the idea of real money being used to buy virtual goods, and even with virtual money being used to buy physical goods. The intersection of online worlds and the real world doesn't stop there, however. It turns out that the increasing detail of 3D objects in virtual environments makes it possible to think of them not simply as game objects, but as digital prototypes -- and 3D printers are the tool of choice for turning the prototypes into real objects. WorldChanging ally Csven Johnson is at the forefront of this movement. On his blog reBang, he discusses his efforts to convert the game data for objects into CAD data usable with rapid prototyping hardware.

The metaverse is not just an ethereal “storyteller’s” world. It’s a world comprised of data. Just look at the reasons Marketing people are salivating over it. The tracking data is orders of magnitude better than trying to count eyeballs watching a television screen. And in a 3D interface (which is what those videogames really are), that data goes well beyond just “hits” or “click-throughs”- it’s comprised of “vectors” and “3D positional data”. And here’s the important part: that data can be converted into more than just marketing statistics. It can be converted into real product; something you can hold… in the flesh. The Story made Real.


The image above [At left here -- Jamais] is a screen capture from Pro/ENGINEER CAD, perhaps the most widely used product development 3D application for design and manufacturing. That object is a piece of a virtual game object “captured” from id’s Quake 3 videogame (the barrel of a Rocket Launcher). It was not created in my CAD application. It was not ripped from the game files. I “hijacked” the data streaming to my monitor using a freely available tool. And now, if I desired, I could manipulate the data and create a real product.

Imagine now that I’m in the Long Tail, with a home fabrication unit and an eBay store. Things start to get really interesting, don’t they?

Don't get tripped up by the example being a "rocket launcher" that wouldn't work in the real world. The tools for creating virtual objects in or for games have become startlingly sophisticated, while in many cases becoming much easier to use. Some games, like Second Life, allow players to craft complex goods, from weapons to furniture to clothing, as well as design buildings. A home 3D printer of the near future may not be able to (or allowed to) print out a working gun -- and I would expect few people would complain about that -- but it almost certainly would be able to print out a chair, and probably be able to print out some kinds of clothing.

And, as Csven reminds us, 3D "printers" for building houses are just about here.

We pointed to "Contour Crafting" back in 2004, and it turns out they've been busy in the meantime. The architecture industry journal Building Design reports that the Contour Crafting group, led by USC engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, is less than three months away from being able to print out their first building.

Khoshnevis claimed the new technology would "take over the entire construction industry".

He said: "We are now building a machine of capable of building a full sized house inside the lab.

It will be built from some form of concrete. Then we will build a weatherproof machine and build it outside. It will be easily deployable on a truck and can be moved from place to place."

The US team has already built a wall using a machine which extrudes cement which is then reinforced with reinforcement bar.

There are plenty of reasons to see this first generation of home printing as not terribly useful or elegant, but that's really beside the point. There's no reason why the technology won't improve over time -- the materials will get smarter and more environmentally sound, and the entire process will get cheaper and easier. And, quite possibly within the next couple of decades if not sooner, people will be able to print out the same homes they "live" in online.

Comments (10)

Pace Arko:

I remember reading Csven's article that, among other things, had an image of a handgun lathed out of plastic on a laser milling machine. Initially these won't be as good as the ones made by real factories but that's not the point. The point is it could lead to a lot of untraceable weapons being used to commit crime. Or a lot of insurgents arming themselves to stage a coup d'etat.

This is very controversial and I don't mean to bring everyone down but, I think it would be great if WC penned an article about how to deal constructively with this potential. Because as Jamais' article above demonstrates, the future isn't that far away. We need to think about this.


How does Xerox deal with the threat of Counterfeiting? @@

A few points here.

First I should point out that the "rocket launcher barrel" example was actually posted to show how 3D data could be culled from information flowing to the hardware that paints our videoscreen and then turned into real world product (minus the expense of sending it out for fabrication). In other words, the information/data was gathered through eavesdropping. For me the importance of this is that it demonstrates how consumers will inevitably gain control over content in most all its forms; perhaps some day using x-ray scanners to peer inside sealed devices which cannot be opened or self-destruct during an attempt.

Second is that what I have in CAD could in fact be used as part of a working device (it's only the barrel, so by default it wouldn't do much on its own). It's not the best geometry in the world, but as the 3D flowing to our screens improves so will its usefullness. I expect that we'll soon see a convergence in this area where the 3D files used to manufacture products are also used to fill virtual worlds; and vice versa. This is actually the basis for my choosing the name "reBang" for my site/business; which, unknown to me at the time, turned out to also be a gaming term.

Third, for Pace, I need to get picky here on terminology (no offense intended). The handgun to which you are referring was, if I'm not mistaken, created using an SLA-style rapid prototyping machine. In other words, it was created using an Additive process rather than a Subtractive process. The difference between the two cannot be overstated. In addition, while that example was fabricated using a resin, there's no reason afaik a metal could not be used. There's been remarkable progress in the development of machines that create metal parts using Additive processes. I assume this progress is being fueled by a lucrative target market: the Tooling Industry (which typically cuts steel molds for mass production manufacturing instead of "growing" them).

Lastly, I wanted to point out that this entry has just credited a virtual identity named Csven Concord. Seems that convergence - or perhaps divergence - is happening on other fronts as well.

Thanks for the clarifications, Csven.

And, um, whoops. Fixed the name. Sorry about that.

I work in architecture and construction. I really don't think that buildings should be built by automatons, especially if their guidance systems contain few or no feedbacks. Good buildings are not manufactured; they're generated by processes that must include taking stock, evaluating progress, changing details for better fit, fine tuning, etc. Also, buildings are never "finished" - they're constantly adapted, remodeled, tweaked. This is a co-evolutionary process - one that I fear is bypassed by fabbing machines. A car assembled by robots? Sure. A building fabricated by robots and algorithms? I think that will lead to many horrible buildings. It certainly has little to do with biomimicry.


Yes right noow we already have the ability to fab a gun out of metal that can then fire ammo. So that genie is already out of the bottle.

But then you can get a gun anywhere on the planet anyway.

Actually, it's C. Sven, but I'm honestly enjoying the name game. I mean, how many virtual world avatars get outside their simulations? That's pretty cool. It's not just the 2D/3D data crossing over (as many young MySpace and FaceBook members are learning while searching for employment).

Pace Arko:

Thanks for the clarification C. Sven.

I remember a scene in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where several of the characters discuss the difficulty of making rifle barrels. (If fabrication machines get this good and this cheap, that's not really a problem anymore.)

This discussion was in relation to an earlier scene in the book were two of the main characters discuss the anonymous, encrypted and reliable propagation of something vaguely equivalent to The Anarchist Cookbook. The idea, perhaps misguided, was to make genocides less likely by giving the knowledge and tools necessary to populations under threat.

Seems to me that as these fab machines get cheaper that this idea might be more plausible than previously thought. I'm reminded of the enormous growth in weapons shops along the Afghan/Pakistani border during the Soviet occupation and the civil war and insurgency that followed--and continues to this day.

It's true, in this weapons drenched world, that it's easy to get a gun, or worse, when you need one but I still think these fabrication technologies will have a strong impact on the making of zip guns.

Maybe, just maybe, if people can build the things they need in order to have lots of food and water, then the need to use guns might diminish.

There's a way to test this hypothesis: try it.



Naa people are too cranky to not shoot each other for no reason at all.


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