Those bobble-heads on your desk may soon get some competition -- from you.
This month, Luxembourg-based Artec began shipping 3-D body scanning booths designed to capture detailed imagery of you, from the smirk on your face to the creases in your clothing. After getting scanned, consumers can order a 3-D printed mini replica of themselves for display at home or the office. Or, assuming you're not overestimating your appeal to others, you can give it as a gift.
I recently visited Artec's showroom in Palo Alto, California, to try it out. The booth wasn't accessible at the time, so they demonstrated the technology using their portable handheld 3-D scanner that first gave them the idea for this product. The $18,000 device, which is typically sold to companies in the medical, automotive and movie industries, can capture the geometry of physical objects.
Standing on a Lazy Susan, employees slowly rotated me as they scanned up and down my body. They also scanned me using a free app for Microsoft's Xbox Kinect. Days later, I received miniature 3-D printed replicas of myself, including one that was 5 inches tall.
My first thought: I looked as dorky scaled-down as I do life-sized. My second thought: Who would want this?
Apparently, not my kids. They weren't sure what to make of the mini me sitting on the kitchen counter. But the reception seems to have been much different for Asda, the U.K. supermarket chain owned by Wal-Mart. During a one-week test, about 1,000 people were scanned, according to Leonid Volkov, Artec's chief business development officer. That turnout was enough for Asda to order 10 booths, which cost about $180,000 each. These booths come equipped with multiple rotating scanners that can automatically capture your image in about 12 seconds.
You can also get scanned with your significant other or kids, sort of a high-tech version of the family portrait. Customers can scan their children at various milestones in their life, said Andrew Devoy, a spokesman for Asda. The idea here is these figurines, sometimes called "shapies" or "3-D selfies," allow you to physically capture a moment, be it a couple getting married or someone with only weeks left to live (as was the case during the trial run, according to Volkov).
Cool or weird? Either way, it's the latest effort by the 3-D industry to grab the attention of consumers, most of whom haven't yet embraced the technology the way hobbyists and designers have. In July, Home Depot announced it was selling 3-D printers in its stores for the first time, a move described as a "step into the mainstream."
While examples abound of how 3-D technologies allow you to create highly customized parts and products, a figurine of you or a loved one shows just how personal 3-D personalization can get. And Artec isn't the only one betting on this type of 3-D product. Berlin-based Twinkind opened its doors about a year ago and has already printed thousands of figurines, according to Timo Schaedel, the company's CEO. He said their booth uses photogrammetry and can take a scan in 1/5000 of a second. At that speed, fidgety kids and hard-to-control pets aren't a problem.
Twindom, based in Emeryville, California, is another competitor. Company co-founder David Pastewka, however, takes issue with calling the figurines "3-D selfies." He said only a "tiny percentage" of his thousands of customers "get a twin of themselves for themselves." He said people are more interested in capturing a memory with their family; couples will be scanned holding each other. Customers are asking themselves "what is the one person, pet, etc. in my life that I want captured most in a tangible form," he said.
Unlike selfies, which require little effort, cost or thought, customers are likely to be much more selective with their figurines. Just as the sizes and quality vary widely, so do the prices. It can range from about $40 to $100 or more each. Artec's Volkov expects prices to come down as 3-D technology improves and spreads.
Aside from the figurines, there are other potential business dimensions to these booths. Artec CEO Artyom Yukhin said he doesn't want to "spend three hours with my wife at the store" trying on clothing. So he sees an opportunity to use 3-D body scans in the apparel industry -- perhaps for custom-made garments or to virtually try on clothes. If people got multiple scans of themselves or their children over time, that data could be useful in the fitness business (think of the before-and-after shots) and the broader health care industry.
In the meantime, Artec said it plans to ship about 200 more booths later this year. The company said it has been in discussions with other big retailers and amusement parks, but wouldn't provide further details. Japan is Artec's top market, with South Korea and China coming in second, Yukhin said. Many of the portable devices that Artec sold in Japan are used to scan people.
As for me, I'm just hoping my figurine can keep its place on the counter. At the very least, it's a great conversation piece when guests come over. That might be enough to keep me out of the bin in the basement holding the other bobble-heads.
Other related stories by this author:
- The Future of Making: How Innovation Disrupted Itself in 2013
- What 3-D Printing Could Mean for the World's Factory -- China
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