Radiohead – House of Cards

A while ago, I was waffling on about how the tools we’ve got let us capture 3D info, and very cheaply. Capturing 2D info is easy, it’s called a scanner.

I was impressed, coz the 3D scanners can now be got for less than 100 Euros. Yeah, well, that’s the home stuff. The professional kit can now capture 3D data in real time, and for large outdoor spaces. That kit was used for the new Radiohead video. It’s all position data. None of this is recorded using light, it’s all just points in x,y,z space:

This is how I see the world, when I’ve been doing too much design work – just clouds of point data, marking out the location in space of corners, edges, surfaces. It screws with your perception of reality.

Here’s how it was done. And that’s drooly-worthy in and of itself, but it may change the world. Kinda*.

Link a 2D scanner to a printer and you’ve got a photocopier. Ok, now imagine the step-change from early medieval times to today. Then, every page of writing had to be copied by pen, by hand, and cost astounding amounts of money, sufficient that books where rare, locked away in monasteries and, for all practical purposes, totally irrelevant to most people’s life. Today, I can copy and print text at essentially zero cost, my job involves not much but reading, everyone I know can read, and the written word rules the world.

Okay, right now, reproducing a physical object is expensive, tedious and error-prone. (I know, I’ve been making lots of error-prone physical objects recently.) But we’re heading rapidly towards the point where any physical object can be reproduced, anywhere, at ever plummeting cost. At which point, the techno-libertarian fantasy says “all your physical objects belong to us!”. Kinda.

* And here’s where I think this is far more complicated than anyone has worked out:

You may have noticed that, despite having zero-cost reproduction of writing, we still have a publishing industry, bookshops, and authors getting paid. The first we don’t need for physical reproduction, nor the second, and the third is the only essential part, but the current setup seems to do that part particularly badly.

Partly this is inertia, we’ve yet to reach the new equilibrium, partly the system is a response to the search problem of sorting the written wheat from the chaff, and partly it’s coz business models like 20th Century publishing have an inbuilt and strong resistance to being made obsolete (see copyright laws, DRM, and this XKCD toon).

However, 3D objects are not words on paper, or tunes, or movies. They are far more than just data to define the surface of a closed volume, that volume being filled with homogenous stuff. Pick up any manufactured object on your desk, think about what’s inside it. Okay, coffee cup, no prob, could reproduce it already with a sub-$10K 3D printer and a sub-$1K kiln. Mp3 player? Full of astoundingly complicated stuff, strange materials, patterned on a sub-micron scale. We’re not making that from a 3D printer till we’ve got nanotech, and when/if we have, then all bets are off.

So, making all the interesting objects is far harder than 3D printing allows. It makes it easier, but nowhere near zero-cost.

Also, the nefarious uses of 3D printers are sufficient that I don’t believe any government will allow their unrestrained use, just as colour photocopiers won’t copy bank notes. From a geek-libertarian point of view, I should be annoyed about this, but frankly, I think it might not be a great idea to give everyone the ability to make a zero-cost machine gun and bullets in their own garden shed.

13 thoughts on “Radiohead – House of Cards

  1. People make guns (and even bullets) today using ordinary machine shops. Not very good guns mind, unless they’re Afghans.

    The hard to get/make part is the propellant and percussion cap. The chemicals you need to make those are already quite restricted.

    1. Well, the cost of an ordinary machine shop is about $10K, making the propellant is hard, as you note, and detailed designs aren’t available to download from the web, yet. And the skills to run a machine shop are increasingly rare, at least in the West.

      So there’s a fair bit of a barrier there. When it’s as easy as printing a page of text, then there’ll be more calls for legal restraints.

    2. Mercury, ethanol, and nitric acid? Okay, the latter is a bit of a challenge: you get sulfuric acid from the local car battery store and sodium nitrate used for burning out stumps.
      The thing is — your homemade caps won’t be anywhere nearly as reliable. Personally I think that’s a good thing. I’m a big proponent of people carrying muzzle-loading rifles. (To paraphrase Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, there’s no reason for people to own machine guns: if it takes more than one shot they have no business owning a gun in the first place.)

  2. All forms of spatial manipulation fuck with your perspective. When I was drawing portraits for a living, I started to see the world in patches of light and shade.

    Art is like slow-release LSD. *nods*

    1. Ooooh, how long did you do that for, and in what context? I did portraits at weekend markets for one summer, it was not my most successful artistic pursuit 😛

      1. I did it for about a year, commissioned photorealist pencil portraits of people, racehorses and (for some odd reason) pitbulls – my prices were fairly high because photorealist work is finicky and time consuming, so I guess only folks that really liked their animals and family and had money went for it.

        It was more of an income supplement than a living, although one portrait could feed me for a week or two.

  3. I’m sure you’re aware of some of the very cool CNC print flat-pack furniture businesses springing up all over the place, as Treehugger likes to wax lyrical over. And just 3D printers in general. We’re a way away from making things that use more than one basic material though…

      1. There’s the further problem that some of the really neat stuff we make requires more than just atomic level of control. Cold-forged anything, or directionally solidified castings (like turbine blades, which I think are the height of human manufacturing prowess) require that atoms be placed in non-equilibrium positions with respect to one another, and even when we get to the point where we can print on the nano/femtoscale level, we currently have no clue how to do that kind of creation.
        Pity, coz it’d sure be neat to print engines. Imagine how much smaller and lighter an engine could be if it didn’t have any internal fasteners.

        I’m working (slowly) on getting a 3-d chocolate printer built, a la the one that Saul Griffith built a few years back. Once I have some experience with that, I’d really like to try something using a tig welder and a wirefeed, and see if I can print metal. Still no idea how to get it to do over/undercut forms, but with clever design maybe I wouldn’t have to.

        1. One handy use for selective laser sintering could be making turbine blades with very complex internal micro-channels for cooling. Don’t know if anyone’s done this yet, last time I checked they were still electron-beam drilling the film coolant holes.

          Imagine how much less reparable an engine could be if it didn’t have any internal fasteners? Or recyclable? but that’s an entirely different set of questions…

          1. My assumption is that repair is likely a thing of the past, that within 30 years everything is going to be so complex — based on nanotech and skills that are simply outside amateur status — and manufacturing is going to be so cheap, that it won’t make sense to do repair.
            That’s already the case with electronics, and in the US at least, if you’re talking about Japanese cars, with engines. Nobody rebuilds Japanese car engines, they just get another engine from the low-time used market. It costs twice as much to do a rebuild.
            (and I suspect an engine built with ideal clearances and no stress risers/irregularities from fasteners might last a fair bit longer.)

  4. Well yes, useful is not the same as shiny and that fact alone explains the existance of Alfa Romeo and Harley Davidsons.

    But hey, it’s another tool in the box for you creative types1 to make shiny things with, whilst we engineers get on with the important business of feeding people and ensuring the survival of the species.

    And by creative types, I mean telephone sanitisers and all the rest of those occupations identified by Douglas Adams and Ayn Rand as being merely the peacock’s tail of civilisation. Whereas techies, we’re the peacock’s brain, and don’t you forget it, you socially skilled, articulate motherfuckers.

  5. I’m sorry to disturb your rest, sir. Dinner will be served at seven, and we have a particularly nice Chianti which should complement the main, sir.

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