April 30, 2014

Disney Research Introduces 3D Printed Interactive Speakers

Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

3D printing continues to change the world. Last year a gun University of Texas law student devised a method for 3D printing of a firearm, and this year NASA announced it will soon utilize 3D printers as an alternative to traditional manufacturing processes.

This week researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research, Pittsburgh announced that they have developed a new printer that could be capable of creating something a bit softer than a gun or parts for a spaceship. 3D printers could be used to print scarves, hats and possibly even a teddy bear.

Yet, that isn’t all that the Mouse House is developing through 3D printing technologies.

Disney Research, Pittsburgh also announced this week that it has developed methods using a 3D printer to produce electrostatic loudspeakers that could take the shape of just about anything. While Disney has long created lifelike settings at its theme parks and used animatronics to bring them to life, this new technology could give 3D printed objects a real voice – or at least allow the objects to cast some sound.

This is likely just the beginning for the potential of 3D printed speaker technology.

“In five to 10 years, a 3D printer capable of using conductive materials could create the entire piece,” said Yoshio Ishiguro, a Disney Research, Pittsburgh post-doctoral associate, in a recent statement.

The design of the 3D printed free-form speakers is based on electrostatic sound reproduction principles (ESR), and the basic principals have been known since the 1930s. These involve a thin conductive diaphragm along with an electrode plate that are separated by insulating material – which could even include air. The audio signal can be amplified to greater than 1000 volts and applied to the electrode, which in turn creates an electrostatic attraction force.

While this technology was first explored in the 1930s it hasn’t been widely adopted, yet it could be simpler than conventional electromagnetic speakers as it requires no moving parts. This makes it highly suitable for producing via a 3D printer, and as such could be used to add sound to toys and other objects.

“We’ll certainly see this in both toys – there are a lot of toys manufactured under license to Disney – and in park design,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told redOrbit. “Talking statues and other items in the park can help create sound more realistically.”

Because there are no moving parts, objects can be touched and even held in the hand without a noticeable decrease in sound quality. The speakers have little bass response but can produce high-frequency sounds – including the human voice – quite well, and the speakers are capable of reproducing sounds of up to 60 decibels.

“Electrostatic speakers are very accurate in the mids and highs but suck in the lows so bird, light animal, and human characters would be ideal for this,” Enderle said. “But it prices down reasonably well and it can be more robust than other types of speakers making it ideal for toys as well. I think we'll see this in a lot of things.”

This technology won’t be limited to just directional, cone-shaped speakers but could be used in the development of more efficient omni-directional speakers, and build in virtually any number of configuration of electrodes.

“What’s more, it can generate sound across the entire face of the speakers,” said Ishiguro, who along with former Disney research scientist Ivan Popuyre developed this method for 3D printed speakers.

The two presented their findings Tuesday at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.