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Technical Perspective: Design Tools For the Rest of Us

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There are many who believe we are on the verge of the biggest change in the way products are made since the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear over 150 years ago. This is not a revolution where factories will make products faster or more efficiently, as with the earlier manufacturing revolution; it is one where individuals will be in control of personal or customized production. This idea, often referred to as personal fabrication,6 is that people will have the means at home and in their offices to "print" new physical objects to their exact specifications. This is no longer simply a far-fetched idea of science fiction. The ever-decreasing price of 3D printers as well as the demonstration of printable plastic electronics and other such fabrication machines leads one to see that personal fabrication is not far off.

Some might question whether individuals will want to design and produce new physical objects or even customize existing objects. Although it is doubtful we will use these technologies for all of the physical objects we own and use, the proliferation of customized t-shirts, shoes, posters, and other objects available via Web-based custom product shops gives credence to the idea that a large segment of the population will be interested in creating objects customized to their specifications. Whether personalized objects will come through these Web-based services or be created right at home on 3D fabrication devices is a question only time will answer.

One major problem often ignored by this view of the future is how the individual will specify the design of the objects they wish to create with these technologies. It is one thing to stipulate a phrase to go on a t-shirt in one of a large set of predefined layouts, colors, and font families, and it is another to define the exact shape, color, patterns, and working mechanisms of a 3D part or a complete product. Training most of the public in the skills of industrial design is simply not viable.

Design tools that can be used by everyday users to create customized products is the solution to the specification problem in personalized fabrication. In fact, it is probably the most important technical problem that must be solved before the vision of personal fabrication can come into being. This is why the work of Igarashi and Igarashi described in the following article is so important to the future—not only for computing, but for production. Many in the research community have worked to bring powerful, sketch-based design tools to non-computing experts, for example, architects,7 students,1,10 musicians,3,5 interface designers,9,11 multimedia authors,2 and amateur animators.4 Some of the most innovative work in this area has been accomplished over the last 10 years by the University of Tokyo group led by Takeo Igarashi. The work has led the field in the design of 3D objects by non-experts by creating design tools that allow a user to simply sketch a 2D representation and then have the system carry out the difficult underlying computation to build a reasonable 3D model.8

At first read, this paper on designing plush toys may seem to address a narrow portion of the family of 3D objects that users will want to fabricate, but these plush toys share many of the important characteristics of other complex design objects: different patterns/colors for different parts, a non-rigid filling that can change the shape of the object depending on how the outside fabric is sewn, the production of instructions to assemble the requisite pieces to create the finished product. The system described here is technically sophisticated. By making the modeling and simulation phases concurrent, the underlying model is always maintained as a realizable product. This sophisticated computing makes it much easier for the designer, as they will never get into the trap of creating something that simply cannot be built. This paper is the first of what I hope will be a series of design tools that will one day allow the public to realize their own personally designed products.

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    1. Alvarado, C. and Davis, R. Resolving ambiguities to create a natural computer-based sketching environment. IJCAI (2001), 1365–1374.

    2. Bailey, B.P., Konstan, J.A., and Carlis, J.V. DEMAIS: Designing multimedia applications with interactive storyboards. In Proceedings of ACM Multimedia (Ottawa, Canada, 2001), 241–250.

    3. Buxton, W., Sniderman, R., Reeves, V., Patel, S. and Baecker, R. The evolution of the SSSP score editing tools. Computer Music J. 3, 4 (1979), 14–25.

    4. Davis, R.C., Colwell, B., and Landay, J.A. K-sketch: A 'kinetic' sketch pad for novice animators. In Proceedings of the 26th Annual ACM SIGCHI Conference (Florence, Italy, 2008).

    5. Forsberg, A., Dieterich, M., and Zeleznik, R. The music notepad. In Proceedings of the 11th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. (San Francisco, CA, 1998).

    6. Gershenfeld, N., Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. Basic Books, 2007.

    7. Gross, M.D. and Do, E.Y.-L. Ambiguous intentions: A paper-like interface for creative design. In Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (1996), 183–192.

    8. Igarashi, T., Matsuoka, S., and Tanaka, H. Teddy: A sketching interface for 3D freeform design. In Proceedings of ACM SIGGRAPH (1999), 409–416.

    9. Landay, J.A. and Myers, B.A. Sketching interfaces: Toward more human interface design. IEEE Computer 34, 3 (2001), 56–64.

    10. LaViola, J. Advances in mathematical sketching: Moving toward the paradigm's full potential. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 27, 1 (2007), 38–48.

    11. Newman, M.W., Lin, J., Hong, J.I., and Landay, J.A. DENIM: An informal web site design tool inspired by observations of practice. Human-Computer Interaction 18, 3 (2003), 259–324.


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