29 August 2013

3D printing startup wants to create a Netflix for real life things

3D printing might be at the forefront of a manufacturing revolution, but copyright concerns threaten to stand in the way. Already companies that offer 3D printing on-demand have been forced to hire legal teams to deal with complaints from copyright holders who claim their intellectual property is being printed without authorization. A California startup called Authentise aims to head off the legal woes before it causes trouble for consumers. Authentise is preparing to launch a streaming service for 3D printing — it’s like Netflix for real things.

Authentise is a company with just five employees, backed by Google and the X Prize foundation via Singularity University. Its solution would connect to a 3D printer somewhere on the internet and pass the necessary instructions for printing an object to it. The complete file is not retained by the user’s system, which prevents unauthorized copying. It’s the same way streaming video works. The bits that make up the video are sent over as needed, buffered, then used to display the video output and discarded.

The company plans to launch an alpha test of its streaming technology called SendShapes as soon as next month. Since there is no native support for 3D streaming in any existing printer or software suite, users will need to install a small program to pass the instructions along to the printer. This process could enable one-time paid printing services for 3D objects, like an iTunes store for physical things that you can make at home.

This technology could go one of two ways. It could make 3D printing more vibrant and encourage copyright holders to play ball. A more dystopian view might be that the openness which has made 3D printing so popular will be harmed by any kind of widespread protected access solution or DRM.

If things go well, we might see repositories of replacement parts for appliances and other household items. If something’s broken, a consumer might be willing to pay a few bucks for a verified, official replacement part. Similarly, consumers might be happy to pay a few dollars to HBO to print a Game of Thrones phone dock. SendShapes, or another service like it, could provide that while protecting the original file.

However, there may come a day that 3D printers can only print objects from streaming services. It may not be outside the realm of possibility — the owners of intellectual property are more litigious these days, probably spooked by the rapid expansion of online file sharing for music and video. Forcing users into the streaming model would also slow the spread of 3D printed weapons, which governments have an interest in.

Another potential issue, what happens if the object doesn’t print correctly? 3D printing requires some trial and error to get the best results. Do you pay for each attempt, or only for the successes?

Copyright law for 3D designs is still a murky area, and legal battles are sure to be fought over it. Whatever the outcome, real life objects could soon be streaming to a printer near you.

Now read: The future of airplanes: Perpetual flight


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