Tied into our current 3D printing boom is a second, equally interesting one: an explosion of accessible 3D scanners.  As you may be able to guess from the name, 3D scanners can take physical objects and turn them into digital files.  Once you have digitized an object you can modify it, share it over the internet, and/or print it out with a 3D printer.

Like 3D printers, 3D scanners are not new technology.  Companies have been making expensive, high quality scanners for years.  These scanners could be used to quickly create digital replicas of things like buildings, entire neighborhoods, or even fossilized whale bones that are accurate down to the centimeter (or millimeter).  But, also like 3D printers, recent years have started to see low cost, pretty-good scanners enter the market.

There huge variety in these scanners.  Microsoft’s Kinect has been hacked and turned into a 3D scanner 123D Catch from Autodesk can turn a series of regular, 2D photographs into a 3D model.   Makerbot has released their own 3D scanner (well, sort of their second 3D scanner), and Kickstarter is chock-a-block full of handheld 3D scanners, desktop 3D scanners, and dongles that turn your phone or tablet into a 3D scanner.  Back in 2011 we even did a podcast interview with the inventor of Trimensional, an iPhone app that used light from the iPhone’s own screen to create a 3D model.

All of which is to say that pretty soon anyone who wants access to a reasonably high quality 3D scanner will have one. In fact, anyone with a smart phone in their pocket will have one whether they want it or not.

A Crisitunity?

Most people will see this as an exciting opportunity.  Imagine if on your next vacation, instead of just taking a picture of yourself next to the Elgin Marbles you scan them so you can print them out at home.  Or going to a botanical garden, scanning a bouquet worth of flowers, and mixing them into a 3D printed statue for your sweetheart.  Being able to capture the world in 3D will present us all with incredible opportunities.

Of course, some people will see this new technology as a crisis.  They will worry that being able to copy objects means being able to copy objects without permission.  And that could mean infringing on copyright (of course in many cases the objects being copied will not actually be protected by copyright, but let’s set that aside right over here for now).  They will conclude that this type of technology is just too dangerous to be freely available, and insist on some combination of digital and legal restrictions that make it much less useful and much easier to control.

A Dumb Response

This type of response is, in a word, dumb.  Yes, it is true that 3D scanners can copy physical objects.  And it is true that some of those physical objects will be protected by copyright (or patent).  And, furthermore, it is true that some of those protected objects will be copied without permission, therefore infringing on their respective copyrights and patents.

But that alone is not enough to build a case to restrict them.  After all, you can say pretty much the same thing about digital 2D cameras.  Digital cameras make copies of all sorts of copyright-protected things every day.  Many of those copies are made without permission.  And, at least on some level, that is a problem.

But no one would suggest that the correct response to that problem is to build limitations into digital cameras.  Or hold digital camera manufacturers responsible for copyright infringement.  There is no reason to treat 3D scanners any differently.

So enjoy those 3D scanners.  Use them responsibly.  Or at least as responsibly as you use your 2D camera.  And if someone starts freaking out about how 3D scanners will somehow mean the end of intellectual property as we know it, tell them to take a deep breath.  Sit them down.  Scan their face.  Turn it into a 3D printed mug and fill that mug with whatever liquid you think will best help them to relax.

Image: Flickr user billyr.

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