CES: 3D printing, ubiquitous screens

The 3D printer called Replicator with some of the things it's printed.

This week's CES is a showcase of products. Companies make things in hopes that you will want to buy those things. But one company is offering you a chance to make your own things. Makerbot sells 3D printers aimed at the consumer market. Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis gave me a demo of one of them. "We call it The Replicator," he says, "and it kind of invokes the future that we're looking for. Instead of buying things, just download them or design them and you can have them for pennies instead of dollars."

You load Replicator with plastic or biodegradable corn-based material, give it a design, and it produces an actual thing. "We have a site called Thingiverse," Pettis says, "where there's thousands and thousands of things. Some of my favorite things are mechanical items, things like clocks made out of gears like grandfather clocks, and also practical things like bathplugs shower curtain rings, replacement doorknobs. You can either design them yourself in 3D modeling software or you can go to thingiverse.com and download all sorts of things."

3D printing has been around for a while but the machines are still very expensive. Replicator sells for $1,749 -- not cheap but not necessarily unattainable either.

"When we started we really wanted a 3D printer, but we couldn't afford one," says Pettis. "So we made one with the tools we had on hand and when we realized we could do it cheaply we thought everybody should have one of these."

Something you realize pretty quickly on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show is that a whole lot of effort and investment is being put in to keep you amused. These companies are making enormous TVs that are ultra-thin and have, frankly, amazing picture quality, all in the interest of keeping you entertained through movies, shows, and games. There are ultra-light laptop computers, tablet, smart phones. Screens screens screens!

Oh sure, there's an element of keeping you informed too but let's be real: you don't want ultra-high-resolution in 3D to watch Brian Williams tell you the news, you want it to watch action movies and nature documentaries and other forms of entertainment.

The people who make the content that fills up those screens are here in Las Vegas as well, looking at all the ways you'll be receiving entertainment in the future. Because that technology is influencing the production of all that content. "Like everyone else, I'm looking around to see what the manufacturers actually put out for display," says Jim Mainard, who heads up digital strategy for Dreamworks.

Mainard has noticed the ubiquity of screens in modern life and has been thinking about what it means for people like him, charged with providing material to those screens. "I'm standing in line at the grocery store," he says, "and you see people are killing the five minutes they have watching video off of YouTube, or some downloaded content, or catching up on one of their shows. So what we're really talking about is how to give them what they want to watch, where they want to watch it, when they want to watch it."

Getting content on all those screens is tricky, however. Say you want to watch your favorite show on an iPad. There are legal agreements to deal with. Mainard says, "Those agreements generally don't allow content to be distributed off the cable box. And then, the monetization of this has to get sorted out. So what am I willing to pay on the go for that access, and if economics are sorted out, I think the content agreements will get sorted out."

So in regards to small screens, there are still some tricky issues. Meanwhile in the actual movie theater, life is good, thanks to advances in digital projection. "Storytelling is really the essence of what our industry is, and these technologies help us tell the story in more effective ways," says Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technology. "The picture doesn't get scratches, it doesn't get dirty, it stays exactly as good on hundredth showing as the first showing, and then you realize that the picture much more stable than it used to be, the colors are much more vibrant. So, I think that it's improved experience quite a bit."

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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