Science & Environment

'We print people': The world of 3D portraiture

printed figurines Image copyright BBC / Jonathan Webb
Image caption When you run a 3D scanning kiosk, cosplay conferences are big business

By now we're familiar with tales of 3D-printed marvels, from guns to duck prosthetics. But when I travelled to a physics conference in March, I wasn't expecting to end up with a full colour printout of myself.

However, at a small stall that popped up on Industry Day at the American Physical Society's March meeting - that is precisely the service that was being offered.

I stepped on to a little rotating platform, tried to stand still for a few awkward minutes while a camera scanned me up and down, and then filled out a form.

A few weeks later, a box has arrived in the post. Somewhere inside it, my two-inch twin is waiting for me to overcome my trepidation and show him the light of day. But I'm in no hurry; it all seems a bit... odd.

The box sits on my desk for several days. Even though getting "printed" puts me in the illustrious company of Barack Obama and Richard III, I'm unsure about my decision.

What, I wonder, does someone do with a small selfie in statue form? Where does this business find its customers?

Brides and policemen

It's not strictly a selfie, of course, because I didn't "take" it (or make it) myself. I was scanned on a turntable in San Antonio, Texas, and then a colourful 3D rendering of me was uploaded to the company's headquarters in Emeryville, California, for manufacturing on their industrial-grade, colour 3D printers.

The company behind this set-up is Twindom. And its co-founder Richard Berwick tells me that over time, he found that the key to the market was not, in fact, 3D selfies.

"To be honest, that market is extraordinarily small. Because it's just a tchotchke; it really doesn't mean much to people."

Image copyright BBC - Jonathan Webb
Image caption A camera roamed up and down to record my scan while a recorded voice issued instructions
Image copyright BBC / Jonathan Webb
Image caption After several full spins of the turntable, I appeared on the screen as a 3D preview

Instead, Mr Berwick says the business now targets families, parents and pet owners - people who want a keepsake of someone dear to them.

"It's not usually the people in the frame that have the print. It's always their friends and family, eventually," he says.

Family groups and pets struggle to sit still on a turntable, though. So the company's newer system is a big booth, studded with cameras, which takes an instant 3D snapshot.

"Now we have something that can capture a pet or a small child, moving around," Mr Berwick says.

This "Twinstant" contraption retails for $60,000 and has been purchased by several companies across the US, as well as in Australia and Japan. Mr Berwick says one is now being installed by London company Empower3D. The UK supermarket chain Asda is already doing something similar with its 3DMe service.

At the other end of the scale, Twindom has developed a tablet-based, mobile scanning system.

The turntable version I encountered at the conference in Texas is the original, and it still does a lot of business.

"I go to a lot of different shows. We're going to South by Southwest next week," Russ Ramirez told me as I waited for my scan at his stall. "Cosplay conferences are really big, too, in terms of customers."

That much was clear from the samples on display: punters dressed as Wonder Woman and Mr Spock stand out from the diminutive crowd. So a lot of people do come to the portable kiosk for a selfie, it seems.

"I think it's both," Mr Ramirez said. "Some of them like it for themselves, and some of them - like the policemen - they give it to their kids"

Policemen?

"We do a lot of policemen. Probably the number one customer, besides cosplayers, is policemen. Next week, I'm going to a county sheriff's office."

The Texas outpost of Twindom where Mr Ramirez works seems to have stumbled on a very particular market.

Image copyright BBC / Jonathan Webb
Image caption "This is me" - five different sizes of Russ Ramirez

"They're in uniform, and they like it for the kids. It's a keepsake for the family. Because you never know - policemen are in a very hazardous job. So this way, instead of a picture, you have a model of them.

"And also, they like to have their guns - their rifles and everything. So they get to have all that. As long it's not loaded, I'm OK with it."

In a similar vein, though presumably with fewer firearms, Mr Berwick tells me his California studio has seen a lot of elderly people and couples.

"On regular basis, we scan elderly folks, usually say 70 to 85 years old. The oldest I think we've scanned is 91.

"A lot of those folks are getting scanned because their kids have decided that if they don't get a scan of them, they will never have a representation of that family member in 3D. They won't be able to have every nook and cranny of that person to remember."

There is also an expanding business in topping wedding cakes with little 3D-printed brides and grooms. "We do a lot of cake toppers. That's a big thing."

The company has even printed out at least six marriage proposals. "They hold a chalkboard that says 'Will you marry me?' and they get scanned with it, and they give it to the person," Mr Berwick says.

"In one case, the woman came back in and got scanned with a sign saying 'yes'. And they made those into their cake toppers. That was one of the best."

Ctrl-P for creepy

Back at the physics conference in San Antonio, I was amused by the instructions purred at me by the computerised system as I perched on the turntable. But I wasn't allowed to show it.

"Try to hold the same pose without moving. Your head should be square with your shoulders and you should try to keep your eyes looking straight as well. Smile." The voice was something of a digital cousin to both Siri and Stephen Hawking.

A little later: "I am now scanning your shoulders to your waist. Don't forget to stay still. After one more rotation, you will be able to relax your face. But only your face."

The appeal of the bigger, instant system became obvious. But when I eventually stepped off and previewed my scan on the screen, I was at least as impressed as I was unsettled. Even the wrinkles in my trousers were there.

Mr Ramirez took my details and told me to keep an eye on my mail. He also warned me not to expect the Mona Lisa.

"It's not 100%. The skin colour is not going to be perfect - it's a developing technology," he said. "But it's pretty good, as you can see. This is me." And sure enough, five different-sized printouts of Mr Ramirez, wearing the jersey of his beloved San Antonio Spurs, were helpfully on display to illustrate the options available.

Image copyright BBC / Jonathan Webb
Image caption Science Reporter - one of the world's most underwhelming action figures
Image copyright BBC / Jonathan Webb
Image caption Better than the real thing? My jaw was never that square...

A team of physicists, drawn by the crowd looking on, bullied their professor into having himself scanned as well. They wanted the printout for the lab. His verdict? "It's a little bit creepy."

That is not an uncommon reaction, Mr Berwick tells me.

"To some people it definitely does feel slightly creepy. I would say about 20-30% of the population, here in the US at least, still looks at it and says, 'Gosh, that is so weird. Why would I want that?'

"But then, as soon as they see one of someone that they love, immediately, usually, it clicks."

So, maybe I am the wrong audience. But as I unpack my little statue, I find myself squarely in the creeped-out camp. The detail in the colours and shadows is impressive, but from some angles I seem oddly warped or squashed. From others, my mini-self does, in fact, seem disquietingly realistic.

My colleagues have similarly mixed views: "You look like the serial killer in The Fall", the hit BBC TV series starring Jamie Dornan. "From behind and to the left, the resemblance is uncanny." "Let's take him for a pint."

Mr Berwick insists that the instant capture system would have reproduced me more faithfully.

"With the instant system, when you print a seven-inch miniature, it's pretty darn accurate," he says.

I'm not sure whether accuracy is my concern; mostly I don't know where to put the thing. Maybe I'll send it to my mum.

For now, I think my printed twin is going back in a drawer.

Image copyright BBC - Jonathan Webb
Image caption Sleep well, creepy twin

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