Why Doodling in 3D is the Future

The 3D printing movement just kicked into a higher gear last week with the launch of a wildly successful Kickstarter project – the 3Doodler - that promises to create the world's first 3D printing pen. In the space of just the first 24 hours, the Kickstarter project for the 3D printing pen raised more than $500,000 from the crowd, well surpassing the initial target of $30,000. With nearly a full month to go until the Kickstarter project ends, the 3Doodler has already raised nearly $2 million from over 21,500 backers and attracted over 120,000 Facebook "likes". If 2012 was the year of the affordable 3D desktop printer and the world's first retail 3D printer store, will 2013 be the year that 3D printing became so simple that even a child could do it?

What makes the 3Doodler so exciting is that it marks yet another important iteration in 3D printing technology. Thanks to the Law of Accelerating Returns, the adoption path for 3D printing is tracing the same path we've already seen for the computing movement, but at an accelerated pace. While the path from mainframe to desktop to laptop to mobile took nearly 30 years, the path from industrial 3D printer to consumer desktop 3D printer to 3D printing pen appears to have taken less than 3 years. The first evolution was bringing the 3D printer out of the academic lab and into loosely-run design cooperatives where creative types could pool their resources. The second evolution was shrinking the heavy industrial 3D printer into a device small enough and affordable enough that it could fit on your desktop. This next evolution with the 3Doodler is comparable to moving from the desktop to mobile, where 3D printing is available in the palm of your hand.

And it's not just that 3D printing is "shrinking" - it's also becoming so easy to do that all you have to do is know how to trace a stencil or wave a pen in the air. There's no assembly required, no complicated design software to learn, and no lessons in 3D modeling required. The 3Doodler is "the pen that can draw in the air." If you can imagine it, you can draw it in 3D.

Just take a look at what’s possible once you’re able to doodle your designs on a cocktail napkin and have them turn into a reality right in front of your eyes. On the 3Doodler site, there’s an amazing gallery of what the folks behind the 3Doodler have been able to accomplish in a remarkably short amount of time. There are 3D jewelry creations, 3D ornaments and 3D toys. There are 3D versions of dinosaurs and 3D versions of the Eiffel Tower. Just think what’s possible once the crowd is involved. According to emails sent to 3Doodler backers, the company is now targeting November as a ship date for its 3D pens, meaning that the holidays could be a very festive time of the year in 3D Land this year. 3D ornaments. 3D trees. Heck, we might even see 3D reindeers.

But are we getting ahead of ourselves here? Some of the designs created with the 3Doodler look like something gooey your two-year-old left behind on your kitchen table after breakfast. And, there are some in the tech community who view the 3Doodler's epic early success as just a bunch of fluff and clever Kickstarter marketing mojo from a toy company in Boston. They claim the Kickstarter video is really just a new version of infomercial, and that the 3Doodler isn't really even a "3D printer" -- it's a hot glue gun. How innovative is it, really, if Russian hackers reverse-engineered the 3Doodler in less than 20 minutes?

However, doodling in 3D is so exciting precisely for this reason. Printing in 3D will eventually become so easy that even a child can do it - you won't need to have a degree in computer science or graphic design to get started. You won't even need to invest thousands of dollars in a 3D printer - you can try it out for the low-low cost of a $75 3D printing pen. The 3D pen makes 3D printing come alive in the easiest way we know how, in a way so intuitive that you could teach your grandparents how to use it. In the future, when you have a great idea for a new product, maybe you won’t scribble it down in your Moleskine book or attempt to describe it to friends with words. You’ll pull out a cocktail napkin, take your 3D printing pen out of your pocket, and doodle your vision of how you plan to change the future. 

image: The 3Doodler

full disclosure: the author drank the 3D printing Kool-Aid and backed the 3Doodler on Kickstarter last week

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.