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This Full-Color 3-D Printer Sounds Too Good To Be True. Is It?

ProDesk3D
botObjects

Back in May, a startup called botObjects unveiled what seemed like a stunning consumer gadget: the world’s first full-color, desktop 3-D printer, the ProDesk 3D. The idea–an entry-level printer that crafts gorgeous objects–was hailed, here and elsewhere, as a potentially great entry into the field. But not long after, doubts started to creep in. A printer with the specifications (color across the spectrum, good resolution) and reasonable price ($3249 plus shipping) of the ProDesk could represent a major leap forward in home printing. How, exactly, did this machine work? Who was the team behind it? And why were details on it so scarce? “If this were a concept I would go easy on it but they say they have this device and it will be on the market in weeks. I am highly skeptical,” Joris Peels wrote at VoxelFab in an article called “My doubts about BotObjects.”

“My opinion has not changed,” Peels wrote me recently. “I will only believe in botObjects if the thing is sitting on my desk.”

The company has been taking paid pre-orders for months, but missed a planned shipment date of October (it’s now set for shipment in March); meanwhile, scrutiny and skepticism of the printer and company has only increased. There’s even a Twitter account, @botobjectstruth, dedicated to compiling grievances from unhappy botObjects customers. There was an accompanying website, too, although the account recently tweeted this:

 

 

The duo behind the printer, CTO Mike Duma and CEO Martin Warner, are, by their own admission, media shy, granting few interviews to reporters and even less access to their machine. (TechCrunch sent a videographer to view the printer, reported that it did, in fact, exist, and posted an article without a video.) So I was pleasantly surprised when I asked a publicist for an interview and became one of the anointed, sitting down the next day in a New York suite between Duma and Warner for a 30-minute chat–with the printer present. But even now, with a deadline past and controversy intensifying, the pair is tight-lipped about the printer. 

 

 

“I hope you realize we’re being very transparent,” Warner told me in his British accent, garrulous and smiling. The proof: I was allowed to take a phone video of the printer in action, but only on the condition that it last approximately 30 seconds and did not show the bottom display. Warner took the phone from my hands to inspect it after I was done. 

I told Warner I would have to mention those restrictions in the article, for transparency’s sake. “Is that really good information to have?” he asked me. (Considering some of the information the company declined to provide, and at least one dubious detail–well, yes, it could be good information to have.)

Before taking a look directly at the machine, I had a few questions about its marketing. Warner and Duma, at first, hadn’t posted a video of the ProDesk working, although they since have, and the first images of objects the machine had printed were these:

ProDesk Objects
botObjects

Why, I asked Warner and Duma, had they decided to post renderings, instead of photos, to show the power of the ProDesk? (I assumed the images were computer-generated or -enhanced; the website only has an ambiguous “[e]arlier images printed on the ProDesk3D, see the gorgeous colors you can create for your models.”) They told me these were photos, taken professionally, in a dark room, and had neither been rendered nor digitally manipulated. (Click here to see a larger version of the vase.) Amateur sleuths had been posting on message boards and forums, attempting to dissect the light and shadow in the images to prove they were renderings. Those people, Warner and Duma said, were looking for something that wasn’t there. 

They told me these were photos, taken professionally, in a dark room, and had neither been rendered nor digitally manipulated.

Sure. Potentially frustrated customers posting on message boards? Not the best source of information. So instead I asked a professor of computer science at Brown University who specializes in computer renderings, John Hughes, to take a look. He wrote me back after I sent the images and source website:

My opinion is that the middle one [the vase] certainly appears to be rendered rather than real. (The table in the other two looks enough like the table in the middle one that I have doubts about them as well.) 

The main evidence is at the place where the vase meets the table. The dominant light in the scene is above the vase, and a little closer to the camera than is the vase — you can tell that from the shadow. It’s also an area light rather than a pinpoint light (which you can also tell from the shadow). But at the right-hand side of the vase-to-table joint, the table is no darker near the vase than it is an inch or so to the right. That’s an effect that’s almost impossible to achieve with real lighting, unless you have some of the best lighting folks around. 

The striations, seen in another, more definitively photographic image of the vase, didn’t seem to quite match up in the directional pattern of the image, Hughes wrote. There’s also the fact that “the table is exactly horizontal in the image. It’s not off by a single pixel. That’s really hard to do, even for a first-rate photographer.” 

So…I think that they’re renderings. Finally, if you chase the link for the vase to http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:55203, you see that this particular vase has strong horizontal striations, and some fairly specular reflection (i.e., shiny highlights). The center pic doesn’t show that at all.

(I followed up with Warner on this via phone. “I don’t know what to say to that,” he said. “It’s just completely preposterous.” He asked if I had any more questions, asked when I planned to publish this story, and hung up without saying goodbye.)

The more photo-like images of the vase were added to the site some time after the first round of images; the images of the robot and recorder are the only ones of their kind on the site. As for why the company normally forbids journalists from taking their own images: “We’re very protective of our brand,” Warner says.

Warner has more experience on the business side of dealings, working on multiple software-related projects, according to his website, although on-the-fringe hardware like 3-D printing seems like a major step sideways. Duma handled the technical side of the conversation, explaining the finer points of how the ProDesk works while the machine whirred and blipped, although there are still gaps that haven’t been accounted for.

Vase Photos
botObjects

Here’s how they say it works, in a basic outline: the cartridges feed plastic up through printer heads at the top of the machine, combining different strands of filament to mix the colors. The filaments are heated it in the nozzle at the top, and the printer spits out layer upon layer of plastic, until an object is formed. In the ProDesk, the company says, two fans keep the machine relatively cool as it pumps out nearly 400-degree Fahrenheit material.

One of the claims that has induced the most skepticism of the project is that can fit such complicated mechanics in a desktop-sized frame: there are four different color cartridges (CMYK, or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, which can be mixed together to form any color) and a cartridge for a supporting material. I watched it start printing out an object (a small, pink piece of machinery), and then asked Duma how they’d managed to pack the cartridges. He told me the filaments were treated with an “additive.” I asked what the additive was. “We’re not disclosing that at this time,” he told me. This was a common refrain. I asked approximately how many printers they’d pre-sold, and Warner told me that was not being “disclosed,” although it was “a lot.” The reason they’d missed the October deadline was due to problems discovered late in stress testing, although the specifics, beyond the fact that there were issues with the chip set and case, weren’t being disclosed.

According to Warner, everything innovative about the machine is patent pending. A search of the patent database and a call to the patent office didn’t turn up anything, at least with botObjects’ name on it; in the followup call, Warner told me he wasn’t sure if the patents were available online, but said that “certainly at some point we could share them.”

When we met, I asked if it was the patenting process that stopped them from saying what the additive was. Warner paused, stared briefly, and chuckled. Surely, he said, knowing that information would only help the competition.

Assuming botObjects reaches its March shipment goal, and the printers start being delivered, intrepid buyers may crack the machine open to figure out the mechanics. In the meantime, there are questions we might not get answers to. “There are things that are never released,” Warner told me, “and for good reasons.”

    



The One True Streaming TV Device

The way to success is not to eliminate 90 percent of features and cut the price by 60 percent. Why not make the One True Streaming TV Thing?

Google just announced their new Chromecast device, a very small stick thing that plugs into your TV and allows you to play videos or music on your TV. It costs $35, and if you’re a Netflix subscriber you’ll get credited three months free, bringing the price essentially down to $11, so people are very excited about it.

So here’s how Chromecast works: you start streaming a video on your phone, tablet or computer’s browser. If it is a particular kind of video–for example a Netflix video–there will be a little button you can press. Hit that button and you’ll get a little popup saying “would you like to play this on your TV?” (I’m paraphrasing here). Say yes and your TV will start playing that video instead of your phone/tablet/browser. Your TV is blank throughout this whole process, until you say “yes”–you do all your searching and browsing and selecting on some other gadget. This process doesn’t really have a name, as far as I know, so I’m going to call it “slinging.” It’s different than streaming; the Netflix app on your phone streams Netflix videos, but Chromecast lets you sling those videos to your TV. You can sling the stream, see? For example, AirPlay, which you can use on the Apple TV, is a slinging feature.

In our haste to crown a gadget the king of its category simply because it’s the newest member of that category, we sometimes forget about the humble, older gadgets that might still be the better fit for most customers.

The interesting thing about the Chromecast is that it isolates a single feature found in some other streaming TV products, eliminates everything else, and cuts the price and size down. Apple TV has a Chromecast in it, essentially, but the Chromecast eliminates 90 percent of what the Apple TV can do and cuts the price by two-thirds. Google thinks that one feature, the slinging feature, is enough to carry its product.

Google isn’t necessarily wrong; the idea is that you can offload lots of the stuff you’d normally do with a remote while looking at the TV to your phone. Instead of click-click browsing on your TV, you just browse on your phone. Instead of having to support yet another version of apps like Netflix and Youtube for the TV, Google can just say screw it, use the ones on your phone. This makes sense!

But there are lots of obstacles to adoption. The first and maybe most important is that this is very simply not how most people are used to watching things on their TVs. Apple TV and Roku and Xbox are familiar because they’re not really that far removed from the way we’ve been watching TV for decades before the internet came along. Apps are really just channels; in fact, Roku calls its apps “channels.” Pick up the remote, click over to the channel you want, click over to the show or movie you want, play. It takes very little learning.

The concept of slinging, in which you play content on your phone before magically beaming it via Wi-Fi to a stick plugged into your TV–that’s at least one alien new step that most people haven’t messed around with, and alien new steps are always major barriers to mainstream adoption.

Another major problem is that I simply do not trust Google to develop the Chromecast in the way it needs to be developed for its vision to succeed. It’s confusing at the moment! You can sling content to the Chromecast with any of several devices–iPhone, Android phone, laptop running the Chrome browser–but they can’t all play all types of videos. Right now, the Chromecast only supports Netflix and Youtube through all of those. If you sling content to the Chromecast with an Android phone or tablet, you can use the music and video app that plays stuff you’ve got on your phone (for example, a TV show you’ve bought and downloaded from the Google Play store, or an album you’ve synced onto your phone from your computer). With a computer using the Chrome browser, Google says you can sling “any video content,” be it Hulu, HBO Go, or something else entirely. Assuming that’s true–which is a big assumption, given the wildly divergent types of video players and security for those video players on the web–it requires that people control their TVs with their computers. People generally do not like doing this, otherwise we’d all just plug our computers directly into our TVs.

If that sounds confusing, I’ve sort of proved my point. This is confusing!

Google also has a spectacularly lousy history of supporting its TV products; if you can actually remember what the Google TV and Nexus Q even were, I’d be surprised, and if you own either, I’d assume you’re also a professional gadget reviewer who received a free one from Google. Google says they’re releasing an SDK (software developer’s kit) so that the developers who make video apps like Hulu and HBO Go can make their iPhone and Android apps work with the Chromecast–but will they? I wouldn’t put my money on it, even if it’s a pretty small amount of money.

And that also completely ignores the pleasure of navigating a pretty interface on a TV. Apple TV and even Roku, lately, have turned their interfaces into something pretty special. Browsing through one of these devices shows huge movie posters and album art; metadata like directors, actors, and plot synopses; and beautiful animations. Compare that to the Chromecast experience: pick up your phone and scroll through a tiny app. Why use your giant TV if you’re not going to use it to its fullest? And imagine the awkwardness of browsing and selecting a title if you’re not alone. What do you do, read out the titles to your guests as you scroll through on your phone? Does everyone crowd around you? Do you just take control like a living-room despot?

The main draw of the Chromecast is its price, which is admittedly absurdly cheap. But, um, the Roku HD, which has a lovely interface, universal search, and support for hundreds of apps, costs $50 on Amazon. It doesn’t have a slinging feature like Chromecast or Apple TV’s Airplay, that’s true, but it does have Plex, which sucks up all of the videos on any computer in your house and organizes them by category and title, pulling in all that delicious metadata from online databases so you can browse by cover art.

The Apple TV costs $95 on Amazon–a lot more money, sure. But you get a lot more for your money (great interface, stellar hardware, support for the enormously popular Apple store, the combination of apps and a slinging feature), and it’s also important to remember that these gadgets can help you get rid of cable entirely. An Apple TV costs about as much as one month’s worth of cable. Suck it up, guys. It’s not that expensive.

This isn’t to say that I’m not excited by Chromecast; I think slinging is exceptionally cool, and I think it’s great that this hardware so cheap and small. But I don’t necessarily think that a device that does exclusively slinging, no matter how cheap it is, is a viable option for most people. It’s best as part of a larger whole.

That larger whole will come, soon enough. It’s a fun thought experiment to make a sort of frankengadget out of all of the devices; I want the Roku’s ease of use and depth of content, the Apple TV’s speed and beautiful interface, the Chromecast’s device-agnostic beaming capabilities, the Boxee’s live TV addition, and, hell, while I’m at it, I want the sports content from good old cable TV. And I want it for $100. Soon enough someone’ll do this. But if you’re going to cut the cord, you need more features to make up, not fewer.