Microsoft HoloLens hands on: It’s early, but it’s already nifty

I was able to try out HoloLens at Microsoft’s headquarters on Wednesday. HoloLens is a virtual reality headset running what Microsoft thinks will be the future of computing: Windows Holographic. But it’s not Google Glass or Oculus Rift. The headset places virtual objects in the space around you, which you see through clear glass-like lenses, instead of immersing you in a completely fictional world on a screen.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of the headsets I tested, although concept images and renders are available from HoloLens.com. That’s because Microsoft didn’t let any cameras into the HoloLens demos, given that HoloLens isn’t that close to being a product yet (and letting the unwashed masses test a not-ready-for-prime-time product can be embarrassing). Although Microsoft said it will come out as part of the Windows 10 rollout — billed as sometime in 2015 — the developer’s versions I was able to test out are not the slick all-in-one devices Microsoft showed off on stage and Wired wrote about.

Hololens-rotates

The version I tested was a complete prototype, warts and all: The HoloLens hardware was strapped to a fitting mechanism more often found on climbing helmets, and the “first of its kind” “Holographic Processing Unit” was a little smaller than a Mac Mini and needed to be worn around my neck. And it wasn’t exactly mobile; the dev unit I tested needed to have a connected wire for power. I understand this was a prototype unit for testing and development, but that doesn’t bode well for the product’s battery life when it’s eventually released.

But what I did get to test out was compelling. I “donned” the device and tried out four applications for HoloLens: HoloBuilder, an augmented reality sibling of Minecraft; HoloStudio, a 3D modeling application; Onsight, a Mars simulation developed in conjunction with NASA’s JPL labs; and a version of Skype.

HoloBuilder was the only game I tried out, and suddenly Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang made a lot more sense. The app makes a room in your home into a Minecraft world. Using my line of sight as a cursor, I dug through a table, blew up a wall, and explored my environment. HoloLens knows the surfaces around you and it did a great job of sensing depth — which is one of the big advancements that [company]Microsoft[/company] is touting. After I blew up a wall, I found a whole new lava-covered world which really looked like it was inside the wall. You use voice commands like “shovel” to call up tools.

HoloStudio is a modeling app that lets you build 3D models in space. According to Microsoft, after you build your model, you can 3D print it and make it a real object — several Microsoft people said that HoloLens was the best “print preview” for 3D printing.

But the models you can create in HoloLens usually have multiple colors and parts, and unless you know how to break it down into components a 3D printer can handle, you’ll probably have to send your HoloStudio files to a professional 3D printer to make them into reality.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”908722″]HoloBuilder was the only game I tried out, and suddenly Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang made a lot more sense.[/pullquote]

I didn’t get to use HoloStudio but I saw a 30-minute demo. From what I saw, the interface really reminded me of the Sims — colorful, friendly, and intuitive. It did not look like a professional 3D modeling program like CAD; it looked like consumer software.

One thing you have to realize when you don HoloLens is that there aren’t any cameras on you; When you interact with other people, you might be able to see them, but they can’t see you. That really came to light when using Skype on HoloLens.

I videoconferenced with someone who gave me instructions on how to install a light switch. I could see him, since he was running Skype on a conventional device with a front-facing camera. He could see what I could see, but he couldn’t see me. I pinned his visage right about the problem I needed to solve and he gave me intelligent instructions about what to do. It’s easy to see HoloLens being used in industrial capacities in the same way.

Microsoft Hololens demo

NASA clearly thinks there’s some potential here too, and it helped Microsoft develop Onsight, an app which interfaces with the software that NASA uses to plan what the Mars rover Curiosity is doing. HoloLens threw me onto a very detailed surface replication of Mars, down to individual rocks. I could click on rocks using an “air tap” gesture and explore the environment.

When wearing HoloLens and checking out a computer running NASA’s software, I found I could see the screen and work on a conventional desktop. The demo even included an example of dragging the mouse off the desktop’s screen and into my simulated Mars landscape.

I conferenced with a JPL employee, presumably wearing HoloLens, who demonstrated how HoloLens could help scientists from around the world collaborate on the Curiosity mission. I could see where he was looking, and talk to him with minimal lag about what Curiosity should do next. But remember there are no cameras on you. The avatar of the JPL employee I saw was a golden rendered human figure, reminiscent of a yellower version of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen.

HoloLens appears to be using a prism projector to display virtual objects, which is the same display technology that Google Glass uses. You can only see virtual objects — holograms — in the center of your field of vision, and there’s a outlined rectangle in which virtual objects can appear. So while I was travelling to Mars, I still saw the Microsoft offices in the periphery of my vision. But after a while, I found myself immersed. I found the images clear and sharp, and there wasn’t a lot of lag displaying new virtual objects when I quickly looked at something else. The HoloLens also has two little speakers that rest just above your ears.

I also found that there’s a bit of a problem with eye contact while wearing HoloLens. Many of the Microsoft demoers didn’t want to look in my eyes for extended periods of time — in their defense, I did look like a cyborg — which may be why Microsoft is covering the final design with a big Marshawn Lynch-style tinted eyeguard.

HoloLens, Microsoft tells me, is a full Windows 10 computer. But there are a lot of unanswered questions.

Microsoft did not offer information on availability, price, what the “HPU” includes, any specs really, or any gestures you can do beyond the simple “air tap.” We don’t really know which sensors are included, or the resolution of the optics, or how standard Windows tasks, like writing a Word document, will work on HoloLens.

But that wasn’t the point of Microsoft’s big reveal. Very few companies have a working augmented reality product ready to be launched to the public, and Microsoft just leapfrogged all of them.

A cheap solution for multi-color desktop 3D printing is coming

The biggest hurdle to bringing full-color desktop 3D printing to all is really a software problem, and a Madison, Wis., startup believes it is close to a solution.

When I first checked in with Spectrom last March, co-founders Cedric Kovaks-Johnson and Charles Haider were able to print each layer of an object in a different color. Desktop 3D printing has long been a one- or two-color affair. Printers that work in two colors tend to have two nozzles, each of which draws plastic filament from a different spool. Not Spectrom. The startup actually uses ink to dye the same strand of filament different colors along its length, opening up a full range of colors.

Since March, the team, which is now composed of four people, has accomplished printing multiple colors in a single layer (a feat that won the team the undergraduate Collegiate Inventors Competition in November). The transition between colors is also now sharp; shifting from yellow to blue does not yield a patch of green in the middle.

But the final hurdle is allowing each tiny pixel of 3D printed material to take any color. Spectrom’s system uses inks to dye filament different colors. Its software designates the exact amount of filament that needs to be dyed for a red layer or a blue square within a layer. It’s much more complicated to build software that can account for the color of each drop of filament, but Spectrom believes it is doable.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oEoyv_yMrE&w=560&h=315]

A release date has not yet been set for Spectrom, but the startup is working toward an independent release and integrating with partners. Spectrom appeared at CES with ROBO, a 3D printer maker that is considering integrating Spectrom directly into its printers.

Spectrom has patented its software, add-on hardware and custom filaments and inks, but Kovaks-Johnson said the goal is “not to gouge people.”

“We want to make sure this is a really fair and inexpensive way to use color,” Kovaks-Johnson said.

The most interesting 3D printers introduced (so far) at CES 2015

It’s difficult to believe it was only a year ago that 3D printers became a common sight at CES. They are back again this year, with a whole range of startups and established firms flexing their maturing lineups of machines.

This is what 3D printing will look like in 2015.

The staples

Well-established players like MakerBot and 3D Systems aren’t likely to release any major updates to the flagship desktop machines they debuted last year at CES, but plenty of other companies are willing to fill that void.

Ultimaker, now three years old, expanded beyond its Ultimaker 2 with the Ultimaker 2 Go and Ultimaker 2 Extended. The $1,450 Go is smaller and lacks a heated bed. The $3,030 Extended is bigger, faster and capable of printing in finer detail. They have the same screen and touch wheel as the Ultimaker 2. I noted in November that the Ultimaker 2 is becoming a staple in office environments, so it’s exciting to see the company diversifying.

The full lineup of Ultimaker 3D printers.

The full lineup of Ultimaker 3D printers.

ROBO also came to CES with an expanded lineup. Its $799 R1 is now joined by the $1,500 R2 and $10,000 R MEGA, according to 3Dprint.com. The R2 builds on the R1’s features with additions like a second print nozzle, LCD screen and larger 10 x 10 x 10 inch build volume. The R MEGA’s $10,000 price isn’t a typo; the enormous machine has a 39 x 39 x 39 inch build area.

The HD-R by Airwolf isn’t quite that massive, but it’s still big for a desktop machine. It prints objects up to 11 x 8 x 12 inches in size and has add-ons like a camera and Wi-Fi connectivity. At $4,595, its price is also big.

The price leaders

ROBO‘s lineup also extends to the new R MINI, which will sell for $399. It prints a tiny 4.5 x 4.5 x 4.5 inch build volume. It sacrifices a few features like Wi-Fi and multiple nozzles to hit its price tag, but entry-level users just looking for a cheap machine probably won’t mind.

The da Vinci Junior is smaller and simpler to use.

The da Vinci Junior is smaller and simpler to use.

Taiwan’s XYZprinting seized on CES to keep spitting out new printers. The $349 da Vinci Junior isn’t actually that much cheaper than XYZprinting’s already low-priced da Vinci 1.0, but it looks a whole lot easier to manage. The 1.0 was enormous and unpolished. The Junior has more modern features like a quick-release print head. And it’s a lot smaller. Excellent.

It also put a price on its Nobel 1.0, a stereolithographic 3D printer. It will cost $1,499 and ship in the third quarter of 2015. $1,499 might not sound so low, but it is for this technology. SLA uses a laser to cure liquid plastic layer by layer. It has traditionally cost a lot more than the fused deposition modeling technique found in most desktop printers. In its typical style, XYZprinting is sprinting to market with its first SLA machine.

The sweet

I don’t know about you, but all this talk about 3D printers is making me hungry. 3D Systems announced its latest food machine, a chocolate printer built during its partnership with Hershey’s. The CocoJet prints delicious, gooey chocolate layer by layer, just like in those Hershey’s 3D printing videos. It complements the sugar printers 3D Systems debuted last year (and still has yet to ship).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gyKmB6RK-4&w=560&h=315]

Oh, and there’s one more machine from XYZprinting. The company has been demoing its Food Printer for a few months now, and finally brought it stateside for CES. It prints unbaked cookie dough and chocolate decorations. It will cost around $500 and ship out in mid-2015.

The futuristic

Spectrom adapts 3D printers to print in a full range of colors.

Spectrom adapts 3D printers to print in a full range of colors.

3Dprint.com reported another interesting tidbit of news from ROBO: It plans to integrate Spectrom‘s full-color 3D printing technology into its printers, starting with the R1. Spectrom is an adapter invented by two University of Wisconsin students that allows most printers to make multicolored prints. It doesn’t print with multiple spools of different colors of plastic; instead, it actually blends colors to achieve a full spectrum. That’s pretty much unheard of in 3D printing, especially for a desktop machine.

A drone with a 3D printed body and conductive strips. The chip and motors are embedded.

A drone with a 3D printed body and conductive strips. The chip and motors are embedded.

If you’ve been aching to print yourself a new iPhone, your day has not come quite yet. But it’s on its way. Voxel8, which draws its founding team from Harvard, announced an interesting hybrid machine that prints both plastic and conductive ink — the materials necessary to print rudimentary electronic devices.

A developer version of the printer will begin shipping in late 2015. The $8,999 machine is a good-looking, desktop-sized printer with smart features like an auto-leveling print bed and touchscreen. Autodesk’s new Wire 3D software will power the design process.

That’s what we have seen so far, and it’s only Tuesday. I am personally excited for XYZprinting and Ultimaker’s smaller, cheaper machines and the coming wave of electronics printers. It’s also great to see Airwolf, ROBO and their peers continue to mature from humble beginnings.
ces-2015-3

New MakerBot 3D printing materials imitate stone, wood and metal

3D printing is slowly moving out of plastics and into, well, anything. MakerBot got in on the shift Tuesday at CES with the announcement of four new filaments built to mimic maple wood, limestone, iron and bronze. They will ship in late 2015.

The materials are actually composites, which means stone, metal or wood are combined with plastic to give them the ability to melt into a nice oozy goo and then solidify — important qualities if they are to run through a 3D printer. MakerBot is advertising that you can still polish or stain your finished products to make them more life-like.

A pot 3D printed with MakerBot's bronze filament.

A pot 3D printed with MakerBot’s bronze filament.

We don’t yet know what the new filaments will cost (MakerBot’s spools of 2.2 pounds of material range from $48 to $130), but we do know that buyers should expect to make another purchase: more print heads. MakerBot announced three new printers at CES last year, each of which included a new feature known as the Smart Extruder that allows users to quickly pop the print head on and off. Now, we know that MakerBot is developing Smart Extruders tailored to each type of specialty filament.

Hobbyists and small startups have been tinkering with printing wood and metal for years now. It’s great to see MakerBot, which is owned by international 3D printing corporation Stratasys, pour some serious money into it. It’s obvious that people are interested in printing materials other than plastic, but bringing the million-dollar metal 3D printing machines into the home is, at this point, not only expensive but dangerous. MakerBot and the other companies behind desktop machines are demonstrating that there may be another way.

ces-2015-3

Da Vinci 1.0 review: a bargain 3D printer that comes at a cost

Crowdfunding sites have been teasing us with inexpensive 3D printers for a year now. But in the end the first modern desktop 3D printer that costs less than $500 came from Taiwan, not Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

The printer is the Da Vinci 1.0, and it is just one of a whole lineup of low-cost machines that XYZprinting has pumped out this year. It is by no means a beautiful machine, but it gets the basics done. Here is how it did over a month of tests:

Two of the best prints I got off the Da Vinci 1.0.

Two of the best prints I got off the Da Vinci 1.0.

Setup

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from a $399 3D printer. But the process I had to go through to get it up and running for the first time managed to set my expectations even lower.

The first printer that arrived turned on just fine. I installed XYZprinting’s proprietary filament cartridge in the back corner, where it makes contact with a chip to ensure you’re not using off-brand filament (hint: there are some ways around that).

Then came the annoying part: feeding the filament into the print head. It involves pulling on an uncomfortable-feeling lever and then carefully guiding the filament down through a tube to the nozzle. I got better at this as time went on, but at first I wouldn’t feed enough in or would push so hard that the filament string snuck off the tube into a random part of the head. It can be aggravating.

The Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer's innards.

The Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer’s innards

Next you swab a glue stick over the print bed and hit print. It turned out my annoyances were not over. The print head rammed itself into a corner and made the dreaded “EH EH EH EH EH EH” noise. I couldn’t figure out a fix.

A very kind XYZprinting customer service representative walked me through how to test the different sensors in the machine that position the print head, but nothing helped. I sent the printer back.

The next printer seemed to be better. The print head moved well and everything seemed to be going smoothly. I teed up my first print and then … nothing. No filament came out of the nozzle.

It turned out there was a terrible filament jam. The kind representative once again walked me through every little technical step. I opened up the print head and yanked out a plug of red plastic. All set, right? Nope. The print head refused to pull filament in. XYZprinting sent a replacement head.

Finally, with my second printer and third print head, everything started working.

The software

XYZprinting’s software, XYZware, isn’t much different from the 3D printing software people were using five years ago. It is not refined. It does the bare minimum: resizing models, moving them around and sending everything over to the printer.

Once you get to finalizing a print, it gets worse. Slicing, where a model is converted into the code that will be fed into the printer, often randomly failed. And even if models did slice, sometimes transferring them to the printer didn’t work. This happened especially often with large prints.

Large prints would inexplicably fail to be sent to the printer.

Large prints would inexplicably fail to be sent to the printer.

When I asked XYZprinting about the errors, they said the model printed fine for them and that I should try a different computer or a different USB cord. Neither worked.

The machine

The Da Vinci is enormous, measuring 18.4 x 20 x 22 inches and 57 pounds. It does pack a relatively large 7.8 x 7.8 x 7.8 inch build volume, but for the most part the machine seemed to be wasted space. There were inches of extra room on every side of the print bed. Due to the previously mentioned software problems, I never got anywhere close to using all of that space in a print.

The Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer.

The Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer

The printer is also one of the ugliest I’ve come across. XYZprinting’s model is to get lots of printers out quickly and cheaply, and it shows in the Da Vinci’s design. It is not a piece of desk candy.

XYZprinting did not, however, skimp on designing the necessities. While the Da Vinci’s heated print bed and head look generic enough to be found in any inexpensive printer, both were made well enough that I did not have to calibrate them once.

The Da Vinci does have some extra features, such as a small box where the nozzle cleans itself before and after each print. This made clogs and other nozzle maintenance almost nonexistent.

The on-board menu is basic. You can use it to direct the printer to clean the nozzle or recalibrate, pause a print and load a new filament cartridge.

The prints

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the prints that came out of the Da Vinci. After dealing with setup and the software, I wasn’t expecting to get any prints out of it at all. But I did, and lots of them.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

The printer had days where every single print was perfect and days where it couldn’t be bothered to do anything right. Large prints tended to come out nicely, while dainty details ended up looking like messes.

A dainty Eiffel Tower and bracelet did not fare well on the Da Vinci 1.0.

A dainty Eiffel Tower and bracelet did not come out well on the Da Vinci 1.0.

The Da Vinci can print layers down to 0.1 mm in size, which is fairly standard for any desktop 3D printer these days. When layers were continuous — without tons of tiny details — it did great. It was even more reliable when printing at 0.2 and 0.3 mm heights.

A thin pot printed on the Da Vinci came out perfectly.

A thin pot printed on the Da Vinci came out perfectly.

Wrap-up

The Da Vinci 1.0 is the perfect example of “you get what you pay for.” If you don’t get a lemon, it can definitely produce decent prints. You just need to learn what it is capable of and choose prints that fit within those limits.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the Da Vinci just based on its size alone. There are plenty more $500 printers that will arrive in the next few years. Hopefully at least one of them won’t eat up an entire desk.

We did it! We 3D printed in space

Stuck in space without a part you desperately need? That’s not such a big deal anymore, thanks to a 3D printer that arrived at the International Space Station last month.

3D printer startup Made In Space has completed its first run of 21 prints on the machine. While 20 of the parts were designed in advance (and didn’t necessarily have an actual purpose), one printed item was designed to meet a real need. Made In Space co-founder Mike Chen wrote in a blog post that when ISS commander Barry Wilmore said he needed a ratcheting socket wrench, the startup quickly designed one and sent it to him on the ISS. He then printed it.

ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.

ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.

“Because it’s a lot faster to send digital data (which can travel at the speed of light) to space than it is to send physical objects (which involves waiting months to years for a rocket), it makes more sense to 3D-print things in space, when we can, instead of launching them,” Chen wrote.

Chen referred to the process as “emailing.” The quotes are appropriate because it’s a fairly long process. Made In Space designs the part and then sends it to NASA using a combination of software. The NASA transmits it to the space station.

A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.

A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.

The first run of prints was meant to be a test. They will be returned to Earth, where they will undergo testing before Made In Space sends a second, improved printer to the ISS next year.

“When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars and beyond, we won’t use rockets to bring along everything we need,” Chen wrote. “We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.”

Watch Hershey’s kisses be 3D printed in crazy shapes

Melty chocolate is, it turns out, the perfect consistency for 3D printing. And so Hershey’s and 3D Systems have spent the last year developing chocolate and sugar printers. Hershey’s will open an exhibit this week in Pennsylvania showcasing their creations, but you can also check out a video of the sugary goodness here. You can’t buy your own Hershey’s-branded 3D printer, but 3D Systems does sell desktop sugar printers. Yum.

Robox review: This 3D printer is great for beginners but lacks in print quality

I’ve spent the past two years waiting for a 3D printer that a beginner can unbox and just start using. The CEL Robox wins the award for the first printer I’ve used that actually does that.

It does so with smart features like an auto-leveling print head and print bed that requires no extra help to keep prints firmly stuck to its surface. It’s relatively fast and friendly, and for $1,499 it’s competitive with the cheaper printers on the market.

Unfortunately, it has some disappointing flaws when it comes to print quality. Here’s a look at how the printer performed over a month of tests:

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

Setup

The Robox has the fastest setup of any printer I have ever encountered. It’s ready to print out of the box; all you need to do is download software and install the filament spool.

The spool is proprietary. That’s generally irritating because it makes it difficult to use inexpensive, generic-brand plastic. CEL’s filament is extremely expensive — $59 for 1.54 pounds, compared to the $30 you pay for 2.2 pounds of cheap plastic.

However, CEL doesn’t take any measures to prevent you from winding your own off-brand of filament around the spool. It’s annoying to have to rewind filament, but potentially worth it for the benefits CEL’s system brings.

The Robox's spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The Robox’s spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The spool sits snugly in the side of the Robox, where there are also two holes for feeding filament into the machine. You insert the filament into the hole and the Robox pulls it the rest of the way in. It’s easy.

And that’s it. You are ready to print.

The software

CEL’s software, Automaker, is not exceptionally well-designed or smart. But it gets you through what you need to do relatively intuitively.

The program’s home screen displays the printer. Its parts are interactive: You can tell the printer to move its bed forward or backward or even change the color of the light illuminating the print head.

The home screen also displays the temperature of different parts of the printer. A pullout screen has advanced features such as nozzle calibration.

New print jobs are opened in tabs. You can have multiple tabs at once, which I found very useful for deciding between different prints and saving models for the near future. When you open a tab, you are presented with a rotating view of your model. You can scale it, duplicate it and move it around with easy-to-understand buttons.

Prepping to print.

Prepping to print.

My main gripe with the software was it gave no warning of errors. It wasn’t capable of recognizing the steep overhangs that can cause a print to fail. It couldn’t fix the models downloaded from Thingiverse that might contain errors.

Twice, I didn’t realize the filament was not fed all the way into the machine. There was no indication until suddenly the “print” button didn’t exist, for which no reason was given. At one point, the print bed was also homing itself at the wrong location, causing it to jam into the front and back of the printer and calibrate the print head incorrectly. The software never noted anything was wrong.

The machine

The Robox's cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

The Robox’s cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. The Robox looks great. As I noted in my coverage of Robox’s $450,000 crowdfunding campaign, it feels a bit like the Apple iMac G3 — it’s candy-colored and fun. It’s also small and sleek, and has a profile shaped like an iMessage chat bubble.

The front of the machine has a transparent cover that slides up to give access to the print bed. The bed sits very low to the printer’s floor and is capable of moving forward and backward. The print chamber is separate from the machine’s electronics, allowing the chamber to be heated to a higher temperature and prints to cool more evenly. A few of my prints did end up with curled corners, which indicates that they cooled unevenly, but most turned out fine.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox's unusual PEI print bed.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox’s unusual PEI print bed

The Robox has an unusual print bed made from polyetherimide, a plastic that becomes sticky when it is hot. Most 3D printer beds need to be covered in painter’s tape, glue, hairspray or another type of gunky material in order for a print to stick nicely to them. Not the Robox’s bed. Stuff sticks great.

Once the bed cools down and loses its special heated properties, items are supposed to pop off easily. That was the case most of the time. But whenever I printed something flat, like a coaster or a keychain, it became a game of strength and will to get it off. So be warned.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done. This print’s corners curled.

The Robox’s biggest advancement is its print head. It has two nozzles, one of which is dedicated to printing fine details and the other to infill. The infill nozzle puts out far more filament, which allows the printer to work faster. Considering I sometimes ran the printer for several days straight on a large print (which it handled with ease), it was a great option to be able to shave some time off printing the unimportant inside of an object. Every printer should have this feature.

Oh, and when CEL says its printer is auto-leveling, it really means it. Before every print the print head touches itself to the print bed several times to ensure both of the nozzles are at the right height. It’s a confidence-boosting display that the printer is in working order, and it always got the calibration right.

I actually worked with two separate Robox printers. The first printer worked well until it randomly would not turn on one day. CEL was stumped on the issue, and eventually the printer just resumed working.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

The second printer arrived with two problems. The bed homed itself in the wrong location, causing the print head to calibrate incorrectly. It turned out there was filament wedged in the bed’s path. The larger nozzle also oozed small dabs of filament intermittently, which led to some terrible-looking prints. This was likely caused by a faulty spring in the print head, which only a CEL technician could fix.

The prints

Unfortunately, the quality of the prints that came off the Robox was inconsistent. They tended to have at least one error, if not more. The printer sometimes struggled with fine details.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

The Robox is actually capable of printing very fine layers — down to .02 millimeters in height. That’s unusual for a fused deposition modeling-style 3D printer. I was able to print some really fantastic-looking pieces with the Robox set at its highest quality setting. The layers are so fine that you almost can’t tell the item came off a 3D printer.

The takeaway

There is quite a bit to love about the CEL Robox. It’s built to be nearly maintenance-free, making it perfect for anyone more interested in making things than tinkering with a machine.

But it also had slip-ups, little errors here and there that marred an otherwise perfect print. For anyone who needs consistently good-looking prints, the Robox is not your printer.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Overall, the Robox almost makes my list of printers I would not mind owning. I loved the auto-leveling print head and confidence that every print would adhere to the bed. And it looks great sitting on any home desk. But the number of times prints came out with obvious errors was a deal breaker for me. That’s a shame because CEL gets everything else just right.

Yale, Organovo team up to 3D print organs for transplants

Every day, an average of 18 people die waiting for an organ donation. The growing transplant wait list was 121,272 people long in 2013.

A potential solution is 3D printed organs. They’re not a reality quite yet, but laboratories are already busy 3D printing living tissue. Industry leader Organovo and Yale’s schools of medicine and engineering announced a partnership this week that will focus specifically on research into printing transplantable tissue, and we may see some working applications very soon.

A benefit of 3D printing organs is that they can be made from a patient’s own cells, which reduces the chances their body will reject an organ. Organovo’s 3D printers are actually pretty similar to an inkjet printer you might find on a desktop; instead of ink, they are loaded with living cells that are then printed layer by layer.

In the short term, Organovo and Yale might develop organs that assist a failing organ instead of replacing it altogether. Patients would then have a greater chance of surviving until a donated organ becomes available to them.

The two might also develop transplantable blood vessels, lung tissue and bone. Organovo has already printed experimental versions of all three.

Organovo began selling 3D printed tissue commercially just last month. Its first product is small pieces of liver tissue made for drug toxicity testing.