MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group has invented a new way to 3D print any object, regardless of how complex it is, with color and shape as detailed as a photograph. It’s the equivalent of traditional CMYK printing, but in 3D. The results are stunning.
Until now, we couldn’t print certain types of data models in 3D. The interconnected neuronal tissue in the brain or an interstellar dust cloud, for example, have many scattered structures that float in space with no connection to other structures. This poses a problem for 3D printing: A 3D-printed object typically needs to have all its parts connected–so complex objects with weird topologies were impossible to make until the Media Lab came up with this method.
A new paper published in the May 2018 issue of Science Advances, describes the method, and it works like this: Rather than trying to build stand-alone objects, it uses different materials to create a solid transparent block in which the photorealistic object is encapsulated. That way, something like the stars and clouds in a nebula can be printed “floating” in 3D space.
These floating dots that form the 3D object trapped inside the transparent material are called voxels. Voxels are just points in 3D space, little dots that result from the division of an object into a 3D array. Each little dot that forms a volume has assigned three coordinates (X, Y, and Z), which place the dot in a 3D space. The process is similar to traditional 2D color printing. But instead of printing on a piece of paper, you’re printing out layers that get stacked on top of each other. When it’s done, you get a full-color, 3D-printed model encapsulated in a clear block, like a Jurassic bug forever trapped in amber.
The technique allows you to create photorealistic 3D representations of anything you can imagine–imagine the face of someone captured in 3D with a stereo camera and printed this way, with every single hair and pore clearly defined. It also has significant potential in education and scientific visualization: While you can look at a 3D representation of data in virtual or augmented reality, looking at a real physical model is an experience that is hard to beat.