First, I want to take a moment to congratulate my new friend Jeff Clune, for having his site, endlessforms.com featured on the front page of slashdot. Hopefully this is the beginning of a vibrant creative community, even larger than the one that picbreeder.org had created. Their site integrates with shapeways, which allows users to have their creations, or anybody else’s creations for that matter, printed in 3-d and sent to them. This amazing capability has gotten me to think more about 3-d printing in general, and what kind of transforming economic effect it might have. Right now, 3-d printing technologies have come a long way, with open source 3-d printers like Fab@Home, Makerbot, and others. While many are now available for under $1000, and some for around the $500 mark, this still is not quite there for the wider consumer market. Getting things made by a company like Shapeways makes designing and ordering small pieces practical and relatively cost effective, but I believe the real potential is in the commodity, $99 3-d printer. Suppose for a minute that some large manufacturer could swoop in, and create a slick and shiny 3-d printer inexpensively enough to make a profit on it at $99. Or, even if the printer itself is sold at a loss, they can make up their money by selling the resin that is the analog of expensive ink cartridges in today’s printers. This could be a very hot Christmas gift. Interestingly enough a prize for building a better 3-d printer, with part costs under $200 comes close to this, but I think casts the net too wide (requiring for instance, the ability to print circuit board and reproduce its own parts).
However, I believe the real magic starts when this is coupled with something like picbreeder or endlessforms. Inevitably, when endlessforms was posted to slashdot, one of the commenters asked a question to the effect “Why do we need this, when there are seemingly endless amounts of free, and much better, 3-d models available on the Internet?” This is a point that is easy to miss. While the first generation of interaction evolution sites are simple, the hope is that after some improvement they will continue to make better, more interesting models and images in less time. And the reason why these types of sites are important is that they help to democratize design. Most of those 3-d models out there on the Internet, and I would bet many on sites like Shapeways, are made by professional or semi-professional 3-d designers. Despite the availability of software like Google Sketchup, 3-d design still has a high barrier to entry. Making any sufficiently advanced 3-d design is difficult. However, with the assistive power of evolutionary algorithms, good taste is good enough. That is, designers don’t have to know how to design in 3-d, they just have to know what they like. And when this is coupled with a marketplace like Shapeways, the implications are far reaching. Imagine a future where a mom comes home before the kids get home from school. In about a half an hour, she has evolved a new hair clasp design. She prints it out and shows it to her daughter, who loves it. She then posts the idea on a site like shapeways, where it becomes an instant success, yielding royalties on tens of thousands of purchases. This kind of possibility alone is worth my $99.