Thursday, 28 March 2013

Searching for the Killer App.

According to the Gartner group, 3 D printing is now at the peak of its hype cycle and about to  plunge into the Trough of Disillusion. 

True or not we can be sure of one thing, for 3D printing to break out of the enclave of the 'maker' inclined techno geek, and become a  'must havegadget as essential as a video player or a PC, it will need a 'Killer App.'  

There were 'Killer Apps' around long before there were computers. Rolling back  to the early days of photography we find that no sooner had the first reliable photographic images been made than a Killer App was found - pictures of naked women.

For centuries the accurate capturing of images had been only within the gift of the skilled artist. If you were not an artist yourself, you had to be rich enough to pay one. In its beginnings photography was expensive and technically difficult, but if you were prepared to learn the technology you could join the game without being loaded. In the 19th century technology progressed pretty slowly (compared to the Gartner cycle) and even after a century the developing and printing of photographs was complex, time consuming and  difficult. It required skill and some capital investment and was an area where the technically skilled could launch businesses. 

Eastman Kodak invented the box Brownie, a camera pre-loaded with film. After the photographs were taken the whole camera was sent away for processing. This familair shot was a carefully staged event to demonstrate what could be done with such a camera.   

But back in the 1950's no one felt inclined to send anything too risque away to the photo labs to be developed. Despite the erotic promise of those two girls, posed so precariously, anything too revealing  was being developed in private labs, until the Polaroid camera was introduced. 

The Polaroid made home, push button pornography a possibility. Even the non-photographic type could point and shoot pictures of whatever he liked. One of the British political sex scandels of the early sixties involved Duncan Sandys, the Conservative government minister who, in the late 1950s, predicted the end of manned combat aircraft and cancelled some of most sacred cows of the British aircraft industry TSR2 etcSandys, it is claimed, had access, via the Ministry of Defence, to one of the early Polaroid cameras.  He used the camera to take pictures of his penis to send to Christine Keeler.

Over the years Polaroid developed their instant camera and improved  it to work in colour and generally made it foolproof. It was marketed, quaintly enough, as the Swinger. As with so much technology the Polaroid camera was perfected just as it was being made obsolete by its successor, the digital camera. 

By the 1980s the first home video players came along. Now it was possible to replay colour, moving images in the comfort of your own home. And the Killer App for domestic video was pornography.

By the 1990s the early adopters of the Internet, struggling with their dial up modems, found plenty of online porn. There's an undoubted symbiosis between those technology early adopters, who were invariably male, and the Internet's Killer App. Pornography was, arguably, the 'product' that sold a lot of webspace and probably sold a lot of computers. In a sense it helped finance the digital infrastructure that now so much else depends on. But to return to the first question, what Killer App will really launch 3D printing? Not pornography. This seems to be adequately supported through all manner of 2D imaging. 

Is there a way to exploit the 3D tactile experience? Plastic, of the sort used in 3D printing is not much like human flesh.  Yet artists since antiquity have sculpted the human form. And people are predisposed to touch 'certain parts' of statues, as the 'hand polishing' of brass statues reveals.

What, superior, tactile experience might be 3D printed? There are new, printable plastics coming along, materials that change colour with temperature change and softer plastics more like rubber. But none of the possible 'objects' that might be printed using these materials essentially needs home 3D printing.  The world as moved on since the days of the Polaroid and now even British high streets have shops where all manner of sex toys can be bought. Any potentially printable erotic products seem already  well and truly 'democratised' and available through conventional manufacturing and distribution.   

So the road ahead for 3D printing may be a rocky one. A sex related Killer App of the kind that helped launch photography, home video and the internet seems lacking. The Killer App for 3D printing is, I'm sure, out there but it certainly isn't clear what it might be.

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