Instead of driving to IKEA when you need a new bookcase or stool—and buying something that was shipped thousands of miles—a new tool is designed to make it simple to build whatever you need yourself from local materials. Even if you've never made anything before in your life.
The coffeemaker-sized gadget, called the Shaper Origin, uses augmented reality to help amateurs (or pros) precisely slice up wood, plastic, some metals, or even carbon fiber. Through a five-inch touchscreen, you can follow along the path of a digital design. If you go off course, the machine corrects it for you.
"This is finally a machine that the everyday person can just walk up to and really truly understand within a minute of taking a look at it," says Shaper CEO Joe Hebenstreit, who formerly led product design engineering for Google Glass. "It's one of those things where you go can go from literally not knowing how to do something at all to 'Holy crap, I'm really making something here.'"
The machine was invented by Alec Rivers, who was in a doctoral program in computer vision at MIT when he inherited his grandfather's tools—and realized that he couldn't even make a simple picture frame.
"He realized that just having the tools did not make him a maker," says Hebenstreit. "It was really frustrating. I think it's a common experience that a lot of people have—these aspirations of 'wow, I'm going to do this project,' and realizing I don't have the 20 years to back it up."
The startup's San Francisco office is filled with dozens of objects made with the tool: work tables, curving modern chairs, ornate jewelry, a walnut speaker box, and the carbon fiber body of a drone. In another recent project, they built a giant chicken coop.
The tool works like a CNC machine, which can also cut using information from digital files. But professional CNC machines are the size of a truck and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Newer desktop CNC machines can only cut out small objects. The portable Origin works on objects of any scale; it could even be used to cut out the pieces of a house like the open-source Wikihouse.
Designers can upload vector files from CAD or Illustrator, and non-designers can download shared designs from a hub on the company's website. It's also possible to draw shapes on the tool itself—pulling up a square or a circle, or sketching with a pen tool—rather than going back to the computer.
As you cut, you just roughly follow the shape you see on the screen, and the tool automatically adds the finer details. I watched Hebenstreit quickly etch a perfectly-shaped map of the state of California into a piece of wood. Special tape designed for computer vision, slapped onto the object you're cutting, helps the tool orient itself.
"I think a lot of people talk about robots taking over the world, and replacing everything we do," says Hebenstreit. "I guess I like to think of a future where we can use technology to augment our capabilities but kind of coexist and do things that we weren't capable of doing before. This is a really good example of that."
Ultimately, the company is hoping that the tool will help advance the idea of distributed manufacturing, where it's possible to make the things we need locally. "We really feel strongly that we can enable people to make things out of local materials instead of shipping material all around the world," he says.
While some other projects, like London-based Open Desk, are also trying to help people download designs to build locally, in the past it typically also required paying someone with a CNC machine a fee.
"We're enabling people to do that directly," he says. "At basically the cost of making one piece of furniture, you can enable yourself to make almost everything in your house if you desired to."
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