what’s wrong with 3D printing?

The title is somewhat misleading I must admit. There is nothing wrong with 3D printing as a way of
additive manufacturing, creating new things, reshaping raw materials. Really, 3D printing is great, me and few of my colleagues actually have a chance to use the technology at a given stage of our research work and admittedly it is a great support to us. However, the question in the title is the one which helped me to understand and find an answer I
was looking for a considerable amount of time. I am heavily involved in a research aiming to develop a
tactile graphics display, which I definitely will introduce at this blog at a later date, but I find it
to be a smarter choice of postponing the introduction until our new website is ready to be published.

While editing our research principles and ideologies page, I was dwelling a lot on how to phrase the
obvious thoughts I, we the research team have, in such a way that it is more or less clear what we want
to achieve, what our objectives are. I tried to retell the speculations around inclusive vs. assistive technology, refer to the multi-modal nature of the device, bring up sensory substitution and also make
sure that not only blind or visually impaired people will benefit from the new technology; but sighted
users are going to feel the advantages of accessing information at a deeper level, using various senses
to perceive, process and interpret the environment around us. Trying to desperately classify the
technology we are about to produce I initially thought I shall make an assimilation with 3D printing.

Probably I would have said something like

“Our technology will teach people how to be less vision dependent and enable a revolutionary way of
accessing information in approaches different from how we see the world recently. The tactile graphics
displays will open up new ways of interacting with information, similarly to 3D printing.”

Instead of writing the idea down and moving on to the next ambitious paragraph detailing how amazing we
are and how fantastic our project is, I thought there are more useful things to do, so I kept thinking
about the forth mentioned statement. It was then I remembered a programme I saw recently on BBC on 3D
printing. Clearly the show made the point that the technology is brilliant, but still what is wrong with
it? Why do we not have 3D printers in every household?

The episode gave a fairly detailed account on the major causes of the slow spread of these devices. Most
of these reasons were the traditional quality-to-price ratio, steep learning curve of operation, the
dirt these devices can make occasionally or the temperature at which they operate. These reasons are
undoubtedly correct but I started to wonder whether there is not a more profound source of not using 3D
printers as widely as we could do.

My response to that insight happens to be somewhat abstract, but what if we are simply not yet ready for
a transition? A transition between viewing graphics in two dimensions on a screen and actually being able to build, grab and touch the three dimensional model of what we only saw on a display a few hours ago. 3D movies
are to some extent are available but still it is not as much of a turning point in media as it possibly
could be. Perhaps our brain is smarter than that. May be we enjoy seeing 3D shapes coming out of the
wide screen in the cinema momentarily, but is it not possible our conscious says “this is not real, just
virtual images with dept but I can’t touch them, I therefore won’t accept it as anything real, no matter
how realistic a scene looks.”? May be we took a too big step because technology allowed us but mentally
speaking we are not quite ready to produce anything that appears on a screen. In my opinion we might
need to introduce an intermediate step between 2D and 3D.

Thus, how I would probably define the device we are about to create, is in terms of a 2.5D display. Why
not give people the opportunity to raise shapes on the screen, let them touch, feel its texture, explore
its tactile response for a few years. Once they got used to the new features, new technology, new
sensation, they will want more, people will be ready to accept more. We always want more… We always
ask for more than what we have but if suddenly we are given too much new information, too many new
abilities, we feel uncomfortable with all the newly acquired knowledge. So a 2.5D display would serve ideally as a transition from visual screens to 3D printed objects. It would ensure comfortable shift toward
touching what we see, satisfy our needs for more and still, give enough time to be prepared for creating
things out of the blue with a technology that is just around the corner.