Monday, July 18, 2016

Will VR and AR Make 3D Printing Obsolete?

Anyone even semi-initiated has noticed that 3D printing has taken the headlines of educational technology for the last few years.  During the ISTE 2016 conference in Denver this year, I counted at least a dozen different companies who were promoting their 3D printing solutions for education.  During the conference I also began to hear a few whispered conversations surrounding 3D printing that echoed some of the same frustrations that I have had at implementing the technology at the middle school where I work.  “3D printing is great on the class level but is not feasible on the individual student level.”  “It almost requires its own part-time position to run a 3D printing program.”

Running a 3D printing program in school

Actually, I had the opportunity of debuting our 3D printing program last year at my school and I have the scars to prove it.  After running the machines constantly for weeks at a time to churn through my student’s 3D printed creations, I often contemplated that there must be a better way.  Admittedly, there is a bit of a learning curve to 3D printing that simply requires some initial time invested; however, even with the machines running smoothly and having an idea of how a 3 hour print will turn out, the printing process can take a lot of time for even the fastest printers.

Early on in the process of getting my kids to 3D print, I had to establish a few guiding rules:

  1. Everyone gets a shot at printing before I can print any of your revisions.
  2. Your print must take less than 4 hours to complete.
  3. If you design it, I will print it.
  4. No printing other people's projects that you've found online regardless of how cool they are. 

As far as 3D printing goes, I often have felt like the 3D printing Grinch whose only goal was to crush the 3D printing hopes and dreams of anyone wishing to print out 3D Yoda busts or melted Vader pencil toppers.  I have stood by my reasoning though as 3D printing in schools really is about the design process.  Understanding how to create using precision and scale, and subsequently bringing those designs to fruition.  I should probably get around to the title of this post and answer the question, will VR/AR make 3D printing in schools obsolete?

How is 3D printing useful in education?

I should probably start by recognizing that 3D printing serves a few very practical purposes that go beyond the design process.  Anyone who has printed a custom tripod mount for their cell phone or printed a replacement knob for their microwave can appreciate the production value of one-off, functional, physical parts.  In this sense, 3D printing won’t go away and I am excited to see the technology progress to be more cost effective and versatile.  So what about everything else?  By far the most valuable aspect to 3D printing that I have seen in the classroom is to aid in the design process.  Students learning the tools to design in 3D, create precise 3D models, and then continuing to tweak their designs based on outcomes has been an incredible experience that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Adding VR/AR into the mix, cutting to the chase

How will VR/AR change this?  Imagine if you could skip the last and most time-consuming step in this process.  Imagine if all of the processes of designing a 3D model culminated with simply bringing that model into virtual reality.  (By the way, this is already possible.)  Take this thought one step further, what if you could test your designs in virtual reality?  There are already several companies who are exploring this idea in education and I think it is going to to be a game changer.  In my next post, I will demo a few examples of software that can already do this.  As is true with most of the virtual reality content that I have tried in the last couple of years, seeing is believing.

Check out my next post that details some of the software that can actually do this sort of thing already.