Foo Session: New interfaces for making things

Over the next couple of days I’ll try to write up a few Foo Camp sessions that I participated in and that particularly resonated. More notepad for myself than anything else, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

MIT Media Lab’s Jennifer Jacobs and Sean Follmer invited us to a session about personal fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting, mass customization, and more generally: making things. What works, what’s (unncessessarily) hard, implications etc.

While I haven’t really done much with the available tools so far, I’ve been following what’s going on pretty closely. In this group, there was a huge amount of experience and in-depth knowledge about techniques, history and visions about the future of personal fabrication.

As Jennifer pointed out, it feels like the field, as vaguely defined as it is, is at a point where there’s a window where the rules of the game are being negotiated, and that window is now. And we don’t know how long it stays open, so let’s not waste time and help build an environment that’s open, inclusive, innovation friendly and allows for a healthy mix of non-commercial and commercial activities.

On one side we see an (in the best sense of the world) amateur DIY culture with knowledge transfer, peer learning and openness at its core. The product may not be perfect, but they are yours and you can change them. On the other side we see a highly controlled, commercialized production chain. Imagine an Apple iPrint 3D product store where you can one-click buy gorgeous, highly functional and completely DRM-crippled printouts of other people’s designs.

Both sides have something going for them, but I’m not going to pretend I equally like them. There’s room (need, even!) for highly professional printing services, just like in 2D printing. You send a file according to certain specs, you receive a small run of printed items shipped to your house a few days later. There should also be room for the tinker-oriented, mostly pre-commercial sphere where the process is the goal. That part is largely about empowerment. And I sure hope that we can find a good balance between the two.

One problem to be solved on the way there is big one: How to narrow the huge gap between the first steps of a newbie (download a file, print it) and actually edit or create an object (needs coding skills etc etc). That gap is still huge today. In my view it’s not very different from web making in the early days, where commenting on a website was super easy, but building a website was tremendously intimidating for most. By now, a whole slew of services and initiatives like Codecademy and Hackasaurus have emerged that help move beginners along and up the ladder to web maker. That took time. I hope similar groups and mechanisms will emerge around the maker scene, only slightly faster. I’m confident that they will.

Another problem to solve is much more concrete: File formats. There’s still a plethora of file formats and a distinct lack of interoperability. In other words: file format hell. Exchange formats are super important. Again, this can be done, and I expect it will emerge sooner rather than later.

Let’s go build a future where we can all tinker freely rather than just download a glossy piece of Apple-produced plastic. This starts with teaching kids how to make things.