Fabrication as Syndication: 3D Printing, Communication, and Narrative

Joshua Tanenbaum, Simon Fraser University
Karen Tanenbaum, Simon Fraser University

Many of our visions of the future of fabrication are focused on utilitarian applications: how home fabrication allows people to rapidly iterate prototypes, to easily replace damaged parts, and to facilitate hands-on learning and create communities of Makers.  While all of these are valuable applications, we believe that home fabrication technology isn’t just a powerful tool: it’s also a medium.

Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers explores a potential near-future of the Make movement in general, and 3D printing in particular (http://craphound.com/makers/download/).  In a not-too-distant future, an economic downtown has created rampant unemployment. Two genius tinkerers, Lester and Perry, help create an era of “New Work”, where rapid fabrication techniques allow for fast-paced innovation and creativity.  Small, local collectives of Makers create scads of crazy new inventions and throw them on the open market, knowing at least one will succeed and fund the next cycle of innovation.   “New Work” is fun and successful for about a decade, but eventually its bubble pops under the weight of lawsuits, knockoffs, and poor business decisions by the not-business-inclined inventors.   As a lark, Perry & Lester build a “ride”, a golf-cart navigable theme park depicting the glory days of New Work, highlighting all the wacky inventions of those years.  Over time, the ride becomes crowd sourced as people contribute new items to it and vote on what should and shouldn’t be included as they ride through.  The next innovation comes when Lester suggests “franchising” the ride, by opening new locations across the country.  Networked together online, armed with 3D printers and small assembly bots, each ride is updated nightly with new additions and rearrangements.  Narrative and evocative scenes start to appear instead of just collections of objects and are replicated across the country.  Everything seems great until pieces of a recently-dismantled Disney attraction are “contributed” to the ride and Disney cracks down, suing for copyright infringement.  While legal (and physical battles) are waged, a Disney executive named Sammy comes up with an idea inspired by the ride’s use of 3D printing and robotics: Disney-in-a-Box (DiaB), a Disney-made 3D printer that produces miniature versions of the park attractions, assembled by small robots in people’s homes. Each day a new miniature set is released and printed using Disney’s proprietary printers and proprietary “goop”.

“[Sammy] outfitted [his office] with fan photos of their DiaB shrines in their homes, with kids watching enthralled as the day’s model was assembled before their eyes.  The hypnotic fascination in their eyes was unmistakable.  Disney was the focus of their daily lives, and all they wanted was more, more, more…One model a day was all.  Leave them wanting more.  Never breathe a hint of what the next day’s model would be—oh, how he loved to watch the blogs and the chatter as the models self-assembled, the heated, time-bound fights over what the day’s model was going to be.”

-Cory Doctorow, Makers, p. 327

Of course, in Doctorow’s world this type of closed system demands liberation, and so Perry and Lester do exactly that, hacking the printers to accept non-Disney licensed designs and use non-Disney provided feedstock.   In doing so, Lester expresses one of the core tenets of the Maker movement:

“So here’s this stupid thing which Disney gives you for free.  It looks like a tool, like a thing that you use to better your life, but in reality, it’s a tool that Disney uses to control your life.  You can’t program it.  You can’t change the channel.  It doesn’t even have an off switch.  That’s what gets me exercised.  I want to redesign this thing so it gets converted from something that controls to something that gives you control.”

-Cory Doctorow, Makers, p. 342

This is a compelling encapsulation of the ethos and politics of Making.  However, it is here that Doctorow shies away from one of the most compelling ideas in the book.  Throughout Makers, Doctorow champions emergent meaning: he cultivates a political stance in which outsider communities built on ingenuity and appropriation are morally superior to mainstream consumer culture.    A narrative can be found within the ride, but it is explicitly an emergent, non-authored one, coming out of the “collective unconscious” of the Maker community who builds it piece-by-piece, vote-by-vote.  Bottom up phenomena like the ride and hacked replicators are shown to be superior to the empty corporate-entertainment-complex embodied by Disney.  In this regard, he is faithful to the values arising in contemporary Maker communities.  But by characterizing (and valorizing) replication technology as a tool, Doctorow is ignoring a much more interesting role for this technology.  Relegating the DiaB to the status of tool is like relegating a book to being only an instruction manual and not a novel; it is like saying that computers are only good for engineering, math, and science but not art, games, or communication.

The core insight of Doctorow’s Disney in a Box example is that the objects that it creates carry meaning:  that it is a system for telling stories.  The fabricators he envisions regularly produce new models for their users: models that convey a story designed to be communicated and distributed through the medium of fabrication.  Networked fabricators can be used to syndicate material objects: to communicate stories through material objects.  When viewed in this light, 3D printers are not just a tool: they are a new communications platform.

Understanding 3D printers, laser cutters, and home milling machines as communication technology is a profound leap away from the utilitarian and towards the playful and the aesthetic.  This is a critical step in the evolution of home fabrication, in the same way that playful and artistic uses of computers were critical to the growth of personal computing in the 1970s and 80s.  While Makers, hackers, designers, engineers, and artists already have a myriad of uses for home fabrication technology, it is still hard to make a case for the everyday use of these devices among the general public.  This parallels the ways in which early computers were of critical importance to scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, but of little use in the home.  The powerful number crunching capabilities of computers could not drive a consumer market, but the development of desktop publishing, digital games, graphical user interfaces, and networked communication expanded the role of the personal computer in the home by transforming the number crunching machine into a platform for communication, creativity, and entertainment.

Disney in a Box illustrates one possible future for home fabrication as a communications and media platform, but it relies on some advances in fabrication that are still somewhat far off, such as the ability of 3D printers to create small functional automata to perform simple tasks.  We need not look so far into the future of this technology, however, to envision a world in which home fabrication can be used as a meaningful distribution and syndication platform.  For this scenario, let’s stipulate the following likely advances, as components of a home fabrication ecosystem:

1.     3D printers as household appliance:  In order for 3D printers to spread beyond hackers and hobbyists they need to become cheaper and easier to use and maintain.  Fortunately, this appears to be happening already.  The same cannot be said for laser cutters and other more industrial fabrication solutions (such as lathes and C&C mills). In our imagined future 3D printers and other fabrication technologies are common, affordable, and well on the way to ubiquity.

2.     Closed loop between “feedstock” and “product”: One factor that limits the usefulness of 3D printers is that they require raw feedstock in various materials and colors to produce objects.  Over time the cost of this feedstock can exceed the cost of the printer (similar to the cost of cartridges for ink-jet printers).  Further, one drawback of ubiquitous 3D printing is a potential proliferation of fabricated “junk” in people’s lives.  Unlike data (which can be accumulated without any meaningful material footprint in the home) fabricated objects take up non-negotiable physical space.  If we wish to use fabrication as a communications platform, we must solve both of these problems.  To do so, we envision an integrated recycling solution (similar to the Filabot: http://filabot.com/) that closes the loop between input and output by allowing us to fuel our replicators with household waste and previously printed objects.

3.     Wider range of printable materials and colors: As 3D printing has evolved, the technology has moved from the slow creation of low resolution plastic parts to systems that can print in metal, ceramic, paper, and other materials, at high resolutions, often very quickly.  In the last year, the MakerBot “Replicator” has evolved from a single to a dual extrusion system capable of printing multiple colors of material simultaneously.  In our envisioned future scenario we extend this trend to imagine home 3D printing with a wide spectrum of simultaneous colors and materials.

These three advances set the stage for our scenario, as we try to imagine some of the new applications for home fabrication as a communications platform.  It bears mentioning that much of our work is on the uses of objects to tell stories, so we naturally thought along those lines in this context as well. (http://thegeekmovement.com/blog/?p=69)   Imagine that instead of downloading an e-book version of a story, you download an encrypted set of instructions for your 3D printer.  You run the program, and slowly, each object takes shape before you, like an artifact in an archaeological dig site, being carefully revealed.  These objects are a material record: a collection of artifacts pregnant with narrative meaning.  You pick them up, and turn them over in your hands, looking for a clue about where to begin.   Each object triggers a fragment of media playback associated with it (for our The Reading Glove project we used RFID to accomplish this, but it could be done with fiducial markers, camera vision, or a host of other technologies).  As you play with the objects, you find yourself embodying a character in the story, who also interacted with them.  Some of the objects have particular physical affordances, inviting embodied interactions that communicate meaning by evoking muscle memory and somatic awareness.  Others combine to form new objects, which unlock hidden narrative content.

We can take this scenario even farther.  In Makers, Doctorow has Disney selling subscriptions to a “model of the day” that prints out each morning, enthralling children as they try to figure out what it will be.  We can imagine a scenario where the 3D printer is part of a much larger media ecosystem:  where the objects it produces are a small part of a much bigger experience that spans digital games, traditional narratives, and physical play.  This scenario is inspired in part by the success of the Skylanders system, which uses a combination of action figures, digital games, and collectible cards create an experience that extends into both the physical and digital realms (http://www.skylanders.com/giants/whatyouneed-new).  The core conceit of this system is the “Portal of Power”:  a near field communication device that is used to “teleport” the action figures into the digital game.  Each figure has its own onboard memory, allowing players to develop them through play on their own game consoles, or in collaboration/competition with their friends.  At least partially in response to the success of Skylanders, Disney has recently announced “Disney Infinity”: a game using the entire Disney catalog of intellectual property, that combines augmented physical toys and a large, Minecraft-esque, virtual world (https://infinity.disney.com).

For our scenario, we imagine a serialized story with a weekly release schedule.  Every Sunday afternoon a new model is released, and immediately pushed out to the printers of all subscribers.  This model might be an action figure of a major character in the story, or a piece needed to solve a secret puzzle at the end of the previous week’s episode.  This is a black box: you don’t know what the model will look like until it is printed.  Subscribers get preferred access to the models, while non-subscribers have to wait for (or pirate) their copies later.  Having the model gives you additional capabilities needed to succeed in the next level of the digital game, and the models are cool toys in their own right.  On Monday the week’s new episode is broadcast, both as a television show, and as a new playable component of a digital game.  This new episode incorporates Sunday’s printed item in some meaningful way, providing the subscriber with a tangible piece of the narrative world that is also a key to deeper levels of the narrative and the game play.

In this scenario, the 3D printer and its objects become part of a broader set of interlocking narratives and interactions.  It becomes another channel for communicating information about the story, as well as a means of rewarding and reinforcing players in the game.  Storytellers might use this to build suspense, by releasing a mysterious artifact, or an innocuous seeming object that takes on narrative significance.  Storytellers can foreshadow important moments, or create a series of interlocking objects that slowly interconnect to reveal additional narrative information over the course of a season.

But we haven’t yet incorporated one of the most powerful and unique affordances of home replication:  the ability to customize physical objects to the particular user’s preferences.  Now let’s imagine a version of the above scenario where you download an action figure, and it has a face that you designed, or is wearing an outfit that you selected, or is even a miniature version of yourself as a character in the story.  Or perhaps your participation in this system allows you to craft a profile of your own preferences.  Personalization means that you can participate in a shared media experience, but that your participation reflects something about you.  So perhaps you and all of your friends have subscribed to the same story, but each of you receives an object that is slightly different and tailored to your preferences.

This scenario begins to explore the possibilities of 3D printing and home fabrication for purposes beyond the utilitarian.  We hope that visions like this one will help to shape our understanding of the role of home fabrication as the technology matures. We look forward to a lively discussion on this topic with workshop participants at CHI, and in the larger field.