Collaborators: Geoffrey Bowker (UCI), Judith Gregory (UCI),
Much of the conversation around 3D printers and other devices for small-scale personal fabrication has been mired in functionalist and utilitarian notions of these machines. In this sense it parallels the early days of the personal computer, where the emphasis was on technical uses for calculations and algorithms. As it became practical to put computers in the home, the driver for a consumer market shifted from the technological and functional to the experiential and creative: it wasn’t until computers could make music, create documents, and play games that there was a compelling narrative for a personal computer in the home. In the same way, we now have the technological capability to put 3D printers and small scale CNC machines in our garages, but the vast majority of the use-cases for them are utilitarian: creating one-off parts, repairing or replacing broken items, and designing new prototypes. The technologies that are used to create and communicate instructions to these devices are geared toward engineers rather than casual end-users and the tasks that we imagine for these devices are similarly oriented towards engineers. Design and engineering firms tout their use of 3D printers to rapidly prototype new products in the same way that financial and marketing firms touted the impact of their new mainframe computers.
We contend that in order to push small-scale fabrication technology forward we need scenarios and use-cases that are expressive, communicative, and (above-all) playful. We need to develop uses for these technologies that push the limits of their capabilities by envisioning them as material communicators. At their current speeds and resolutions, 3D printers are the material equivalent of the early desktop computers. As devices for communicating “tangible bits”, they are barely even up to the level of the first dial-up modems. We can imagine design scenarios and research prototypes that push these technologies to their limit as devices for transmitting and interacting with physical objects, potentially creating new interfaces and narratives for small-scale fabrication that can explode the horizons of material communication. In addition to transmitting images, sound, and data, we are interested in what happens when we are also transmitting things.
We have already envisioned several future scenarios – both utopian and dystopian – for the convergence of networking and fabrication, which we describe in a forthcoming book chapter entitled Fabricating Futures: Envisioning Scenarios for Home Fabrication Technology. What we are proposing here is more ambitious: we believe that the existing telepresence infrastructure at Calit2 provides an ideal lauchpad for a series of design explorations, prototypes, and performances that combine remote sensing, telepresence robotics, games, and personal fabrication into the hybrid digital-material experiences of the future.