3-D Printers Could Be Next-Generation Toy Shop
August 2, 2012

3-D Printer Translates Video Game Characters Into Action Figures

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The days of going to a local toy store may be coming to an end. A group of scientists have developed a way for kids to print out their own actions figures from a 3D printer.

Computer scientists and graphics experts at Harvard collaborated to come up with an add-on software that translates video game characters into fully articulated action figures.

The team showed off their development by turning characters they had created through the evolution-simulation game Spore into real-life action figures.

In the game, Spore allows its users to create creatures in any number of ways in a technique called procedural animation. These characters are just skins that are manipulated like marionettes through an invisible skeleton.

Using the creativity a game like Spore offers, and combining the advancements in 3D printing, the scientists were able to bring their characters to life.

The software utilizes a series of optimization techniques to generate the best possible model, adding both hinges and ball-and-socket joints to the engineering of the action figure, enabling it to come to life.

The researchers also are able to perfect the model's skin texture by manipulating what determines how light reflects off the surface. The software analyzes the virtual character, and translates it into a realistic surface texture.

The 3D printer then sets off, and helps to fully assemble an articulated action figure, turning what was previously just envisioned virtually to a tangible object.

"With an animation, you always have to view it on a two-dimensional screen, but this allows you to just print it and take an actual look at it in 3D," Moritz Bächer, a graduate student in computer science at SEAS, said in a recent statement. "I think that´s helpful to the artists and animators, to see how it actually feels in reality and get some feedback."

So far, the team has not been able to produce squishy or stretchable bodies, but this doesn't mean this process couldn't be done in the future by incorporating other techniques.

In 2010, researchers who were part of another project were able to replicate an entire flip-flop sandal using a multi-material 3D printer. The sandal mimicked the elasticity of the original foam.

"Perhaps in the future someone will invent a 3D printer that prints the body and the electronics in one piece," Bächer said. "Then you could create the complete animated character at the push of a button and have it run around on your desk."

He said that in animation, you are not necessarily trying to mimic the physical world, but are instead trying to just develop something that is able to trick your eye.

"In a virtual world, you have all this freedom that you don't have in the physical world. You can make a character so anatomically skewed that it would never be able to stand up in real life, and you can make deformations that aren't physically possible," Bächer said.

If this technology is any indication to the future of creating toys, then one day Santa may be able to bring children their Christmas gifts through the press of Command P on a keyboard.

The project is described in detail in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Transactions on Graphics and will be presented at the ACM SIGGRAPH conference on August 7.