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Monday, June 13th, 2011 10:10 am
Being a big fan of near-future singularity fiction, I've been following 3D printers for some time now. Particularly the open source designs like the RepRap. Anything that brings something designed in a computer into the real life has an inherently fascinating touch of the occult to me. One that can brings parts of itself into the real world, von Neumann style, is even better.

The problem is, as intellectually neat as they are, the final product they're capable of printing just isn't very good. I'd love to have one, and I've thought about it, but I'd really just be getting one for the experience, not for practical use. I can always go rent time on one at Metrix, if I do ever have a problem that can only be solved by an ugly little piece of plastic. Given my comfort working with nicer materials, that's just not a common occurrence -- it has yet to happen, in fact. Hot metal smells way better than hot plastic, after all. Without a real use for one, I might crank out a couple sets of brackets, just to claim self-replication status, but then it would end up sitting unused. I'd rather just follow the blogs and watch other, more motivated people work out the problems and slowly improve the system. Neat idea, but just not very practical.

That was my mental status on the subject earlier this year, when I re-visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and finally got to see the full set of exhibits there. Not being a stranger to the subject, I was well versed in the early history of home computing. But seeing the artifacts in person, all laid out together, made something click in my mind. Home computing in the 70s was an absolute joke. A real company once had a "kitchen computer" for sale for $20k -- and the only output it had was a set of binary lights! (This was the earliest recorded incidence of "you can keep your recipes on it" marketing.) The hoemmade units weren't any better, of course, just much cheaper while being even harder to build and use. It was all very neat stuff, of course, and I very likely would have been keenly interested at the time. But completely useless and very easy to dismiss. Sounds familiar?

Not a shocking revelation, I suppose. But it was odd to think about a modern set of technologies as possibly being in the same situation. It's not hard to invent scenarios in which home 3D printing is amazing, but it is certainly hard to see how a RepRap or MakerBot or even a high end commercial unit can get there. And maybe the analogy is false. Physical objects tend not to scale as omg well with time as electronics do. The inherent physical limits are already a lot closer. I'm still not going to get a 3d printer any time soon, for all the reasons listed above. I've got more than enough interesting hobbies at the moment, thank you very much. But I'm definitely left wanting to keep an even closer eye on what is happening there.

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