Straight out of Harvard, we’ve another toy to print in 3D. These aren’t just any toys though; they’re jointed, moveable little critters. What makes them unique is the technology that a group of graphics gurus and computer science grad students have developed: a piece of software that analyzes 3D models and then determines and places the best types, positions, and sizes of joints that need to be present for smooth movement in the real world. We may soon have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines that can fully retreat into their shells.
Moritz Bächer, a graduate student in computer science at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is the lead author of the project and explains a conceptual dilemma; he relates that animators aren’t generally trying to replicate the real world, but are usually just trying to persuade your eye, and that the virtual world doesn’t have the same boundaries on what can be created, so bodily forms can be modeled that wouldn’t have the structural integrity to support themselves or their movements in the real world. In other words, there exists a gap between the possibilities of digital sculpting and the limitations of the physical world, and this breakthrough in digital image processing helps bridge that gap.
The team used the game Spore to demonstrate the capabilities of the software, since Spore allows users to create their own beings through a method called procedural animation. Players sculpt with their mouse all the different features of their digital creature such as eyes, limbs, body segments, and the like. The mesh models have calculated skeletons that dictate their bodily movements on your screen, but those skeletons are nonphysical and the joints are zero-dimensional. Simply printing that model would yield a boring, motionless thing merely shaped like your creature. With the software coming out of Harvard however, hinge and ball-and-socket joints that are held to the standards of real world physics are placed in the model, presenting a printable version with moveable limbs and even textured skin.
Research supporters include the National Science Foundation, Pixar, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has already filed a patent application. They’re working with Pfister Lab to commercialize and license the technology to an existing company or through creating a start up. Bächer has realistic dreams for later iterations of the software, hoping that in the future someone will invent a 3D printer that can print bodies and the electronics inside them all in one go.