Tucked away in a corner of a bustling storage depot in the halo of the San Francisco bay area is a metal shipping container. Nestled inside that container, surrounded by the furnishings and bric-a-brac of a contemporary urban life, is a small, silver figure. It is the only one of its kind in the world. It is the result of a nearly 20 year design process, distilled through three minds from a short collection of descriptive words. It is also the future.
A Little Backstory
It’s good to have friends who understand you. I like to try things. I like to pick up new technologies and roll them around, get a feel for their heft and texture. This often involves doing a project, but these projects can sometimes be a little weird. Finding good natured co-conspirators really helps.
For the last few years, Matt Sanders has been my target guinea pig. Matt is perfect, because we’ve diverged paths enough he doesn’t know everything I’m up to. However, we spent years in the trenches together, so I know him pretty well. If we saw each other all the time there might be an obligation tied to the things I come up with, and that would make it weird. Matt also happens to enjoy the artistic and technological, so I know the fundamental concept of the attempt will be appreciated.
In 2010, I got Matt a rap song for his birthday. DJ Brixx, a friend I met through an electronics comparison shopping project wrote and recorded it. Brixx lives in the Philippines, and once professed a desire to eat at the Cracker Barrel. He’s a crazy guy. You meet crazy people by trying to do crazy things and finding the people who are willing to go along for the ride.
The rap song set a high bar, but sometime in 2011 I was driving up Loop 1 with Irma, and realized that I could top it by making the virtual real. I could create a small figure of one of his RPG characters. Years ago, starting in 1994, Matt and I spent a lot of time together in an Internet-based text-based role playing game called Ghostwheel. I’ve talked about it a couple of times before. In Ghostwheel you describe yourself, what your character looks like, and what it’s carrying. I had been looking into creating 3D models of the Dust Bunnies characters, and knew that there were freelance 3D modelers out there who were experienced at character design. Shapeways let you print things in metals, including a very nice sterling silver. So the pieces were there, I just needed to get it done.
I ended up working with a 3D modeler named Bhaskar Rac. He had worked at a video games studio, and had a good feel for character design. We did a contract through oDesk, which handles payment and taxes and whatnot. I sent Bhaskar Matt’s character’s description, some photos of him for general reference, and some sample pictures of the things he had on his person.
After a few days of discussions about Fallout and thematic inspiration, Bhaskar sent back this sketch. A few days after that he followed up with a draft 3D model. I thought it was awesome, so we tweaked a few small details, and I uploaded it to Shapeways New York manufacturing facility.
Shapeways prints their sterling silver models in a three step process. First they print the model in wax using a high resolution 3D printer. Then they submerge the wax model in liquid plaster to make a mold. The wax is melted out and molten silver is poured in, resulting in the final piece. It produces a very high level detail, and is a process often used for jewelry. It also works really well for anything small you intend to last for a long, long time.
A few weeks later, this appeared in the mail:
The little 2 inch high figure is now in transit with the rest of Matt’s stuff as he moves to San Francisco. The digital model exists, but no other physical traces grace the earth. There is only one. Unless Bhaskar sketched out something on paper, it’s the only physical manifestation of this entire project. That’s a pretty weird thing.
If Matt were to somehow lose the figure, if someone broke into his house or if there was a fire, or someone unleashed a bio-engineered virus that only ate silver, we could print another one. As part of the “gift” I sent him the 3D file, so if he wanted he could populate his house with tiny Matt figures in every size and color. He could open source it, upload it to Shapeways and let anyone print a tiny Matt figure for their Monopoly set. It’s a present that comes with it’s own infinite digital reconstruction blueprint.
But what if someone stole the digital one? What if it leaked out, and people liked it so much they started printing their own? How would that make Matt feel? How would it make me feel? Does he have “the original” even though there is no original? Is it a “first” like a blog comment? Is there still something unique about the one that arrived in his house packed in a tiny little box for his birthday in 2011? I think so, but it lives in a weird space.
I think this kind of gift, the present deeply rooted in the past, in a shared history and experience, but interpreted by skilled artisans into something new, is going to be the new normal. While hiring artists and 3D modelers is challenging now, there’s nothing stopping someone from creating Photoshop or Maya as a service. Perhaps Shapeways will even evolve in that direction. Supply the talent, ship the product.
We’re surrounded by mass market objects. Books, movies, furniture, even sometimes what we consider to be art. We collect it and we arrange it, but it isn’t truly unique. The hand blown glasses at Ikea say they’re made by hand and each is unique, but you’re buying them from Ikea, so the really weird ones probably get tossed in the recycling heap. Sometimes we may shop at craft fairs, but even crafters will reproduce an item if it sells. It’s hard to create things from scratch, and producing one-offs is expensive in a traditional model.
But now that the means of production are so cheap, and the training to use them is largely free and open, we can truly have unique things without spending a lot of money. We can create home movies that are beautiful, we can hire artists to create beautiful things just for us or the ones we care about.
It’s possible we’re just setting ourselves up for a backlash. The figure I made for Matt isn’t a Warhol, and while we both get it and enjoy it, I’m sure some would argue that we’d be better off with a good reproduction of something truly important instead of a meta-reference. But Warhols are meta-references, so maybe we’re just becoming hyper-personal with them. In the end that’s what we get to weigh. Is the quality of the work more important, or the personal connection you have to it?