3D printing for a wearable Facebook?

Thought experiment: 3-D printing as information and communication technology

Recently, ASSETT invested in a 3-D printer. This device receives jobs from a computer, the same way as your typical laser or laser jet printer. But the jobs you send aren’t documents. Instead, they are instructions for exuding liquid plastic layer by layer into a 3 dimensional object. Other 3-D printers (3DP) can use other materials such as liquid metal or even granulated sugar.

Popular for some time in the corners of computer science focused on crafting, or “making.” There are special gatherings of these folks at events called “Maker Faires”, which brings together all things crafty. At my university, computer science professor and Maker Faire enthusiast Mike Eisenberg has enthused about 3-D printing for quite a while now.

We held off in ASSETT for a few years first, because the printers were very expensive and second, because we couldn’t really see many ways the technology could help A&S faculty improve teaching and learning. What a difference a few years makes — printer cost has decreased dramatically, and we have done our own investigation to discover courses that could be enriched by either faculty or students creating 3-dimensional objects. None of these were communication courses.

So, here is an interesting challenge for you: How (if at all) can 3-printers be a communication technology? Document printing replaced earlier means of putting information paper, and wide scale adoption altered communication and information flows and changed the way we both disseminate and store information. Printing ink on paper is easily a communication technology.

I don’t see 3-D printing replacing any current modes of communicating. This makes it more difficult to adopt, because we can’t just overlay our current perceptions and practices onto its use. Instead, 3DP will have to offer us something new–either by augmenting what we can do, or completely changing or transforming something in our worldview.

A fairly safe guess is that 3DP will change interaction and teamwork in design domains, or any domain that already has a building or making component. A little farther out there is a guess that it can augment relational communication, particularly at a distance. What if we develop material analogs to emoticons? Instead of sending someone a happy face, we send them to their desktop 3DP a command to print a smiley (or some new 3D equivalent)? OK, and here’s a stab at a transformational idea — what if we combine 3D printing with wearable computing, where we create custom components for devices or sensors that communicate with one another, and that aggregate that information into a dynamic set of data that in turn alters the information in the sensors as well as instructions for what to print. Like a wearable Facebook.

Keep an eye on this technology. Will be interesting to see what emerges.

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