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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Microsoft Moves to Simplify 3-D Printing

Back when digital cameras were the hot new Christmas gift, Apple zinged Microsoft with an ad suggesting that a computer running the Windows operating system could ruin the holidays.

The ad, in 2003, told a tale of how the joys of Christmas morning could be threatened. To get his new digital camera to work, a father might spend all day downloading Windows-compatible drivers - not exactly a great way to spend the holiday.

If today's hot new technology, 3-D printers, starts showing up under Christmas trees this year, Microsoft has begun a pre-emptive strike against any such criticism. It announced that the newest version of the company's operating system, Windows 8.1, will be the first to include built-in support for 3-D printers.

“It's going to unlock huge potential for people all o ver the world,” said Shanen Boettcher, a general manager at Microsoft. Windows 8.1 is expected to be available later this year.

The idea is to make 3-D printing as easy as printing out a Word document. Plug in the printer, click “print,” and a 3-D printer can begin squirting out hot plastic to make your design real.

At the moment, however, things are not so easy.

3-D printing requires an array of different software packages, from design software to “slicing” software and separate programs that connect your home computer to each individual printer. All of these steps make getting started with 3-D printing cumbersome. And when any link in the chain breaks down, it can be maddening.

Just as you can plug in any standard paper printer to a desktop computer, Windows 8.1 allows users to plug in printers like the MakerBot Replicator, the Cube, the Fabbster and Up printers, as well as open-source models, to work with Windows straight out of the box.

Microsoft announced the move at its Build developer conference in San Francisco. The company is hoping that native support for 3-D printers will encourage developers to create easier-to-use 3-D printing software, while also taking advantage of the touch-screen capabilities of Windows 8, said Mr. Boettcher.

“It would be great to see virtual potter's wheels, or block-builder apps,” he said. “I hope there's a wide range of easy 3-D creation apps that are really optimized for printing objects.”

The 3-D support in Windows is not Microsoft's only step in positioning itself as a leader in 3-D printing. Microsoft has also begun carrying the MakerBot Replicator, which costs $2,199, in its stores.

And the company's Kinect motion sensor (originally developed for video games) could brin g Microsoft an advantage by filling one of the most challenging issues of 3-D printing: how average people, without design or engineering degrees, can create computer models of complex objects.

In March, the company announced tools to use the Kinect as a kind of 3-D scanner, called Kinect Fusion. The tools can be used to create computer models of 3-D surfaces, as seen in the image below:

What developers create with these tools remains to be seen, but if they live up to Microsoft's vision, we will be much closer to what's been described as “the home manufacturing revolution.” For now, though, 3-D printing remains the rea lm of hobbyists and the do-it-yourself crowd.