ModelBox 3D uses your inkjet printer to make 3D illusions

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3D printers are rad—this much we know. They’re also expensive and often require you to tinker with them to get reliable prints. Luckily, there are other means of rendering 3D models off of your computer, and a Kickstarter project called the ModelBox 3D looks to be one of them. This isn't to say the ModelBox aims to replace 3D printers, but if you don't need to get your hands on the object the ModelBox looks like it will help you visualize it quite nicely.

ModelBox 3D is based around a simple concept: It prints layers of a model on regular overhead projector transparency sheets and spaces them out slightly, essentially making cross-sectioned slices of an object. Sure, this is something you can do yourself on your own time, but the ModelBox 3D should make it easier, and if the prerelease photos are any indication, it delivers a pretty awesome effect.

ModelBox 3D
The ModelBox would make an awesome light for kids.

One neat aspect of the ModelBox is that you can print the transparencies on a normal inkjet or laser printer, which in turn lets you swap out the design (what you see in the box) whenever you want. A standard-sized design uses 28 transparencies (ModelBox also lets you print a smaller-scale version), but since the models only measure 4.25 inches by 5.5 inches, you can print up to four model slices on a single transparency sheet.

You’ll also be able to buy pre-cut transparencies off the ModelBox site, in packs large enough for a single model, for $10. If you decide to print them on your own transparencies, they print with dotted lines to help you cut them out nicely.

ModelBox says it shouldn't be difficult to make your own models, and the company is developing software that will help you quickly convert .obj files (a very common format used by almost all 3D modeling software) into attractive-looking slices that are properly spaced, much like current slicing software does for 3D printers. The software will also help you colorize the slices as well.

ModelBox 3D
The illusion is pretty good, even from various angles.

I asked Laura Krause and Eric Sagotsky, the creators of ModelBox, how you would make a model from a flat image, and they explained both a manual process and a future Web app they hope will make it an easier process.

“When it comes to making a ModelBox 3D from flat artwork, simply approach your piece as if it has physical depth. If you're used to working in Photoshop, split your piece into layers, designating which parts you want to appear in each. Starting from the back layer, erase elements from your file in each progressive layer.

"For example, a cat would be layered forward starting with its fluffy outline, then ears, forehead, eyes, muzzle/whiskers, and finally its nose. Alternatively to doing this yourself in Photoshop (uploaded as a .PSD) we are developing an online editor to utilize the same process described above to take any flattened 2D artwork and make it into a ModelBox 3D piece. Whether you have a 2D or 3D model, our software will send you a print-ready PDF document with all of the layers numbered and arranged correctly on the page.”

ModelBox 3D
Superman, stuck between acrylic. Guess he's not as strong as he says.

The pair is also working on a customized light pad that will fit either in back or below the ModelBox 3D, giving it the perfect lighting for viewing. The ModelBox should work just fine with any light source, but a customized one will be a nice touch. I was curious about whether or not they planned on making more complex boxes, with a greater number of transparencies, but they don’t have any plans for upping the complexity:

“The original prototype we made over a year ago was created with almost 40 printable transparency sheets to depict a 3D sliced shark. However, because a slight film is required to allow printer ink to dry on acetate sheets, it's only possible to only see through about 28 sheets at a time. That is why we have chosen an optimal 28 layers for this print-at-home version of ModelBox 3D.”

It’s a fun idea, and with the ability to swap out the design in about 20 minutes, it provides an enticing option for a desk lamp. I look forward to seeing some of the creative ideas people are certain to come up with. Check them out over on Kickstarter.

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This story, "ModelBox 3D uses your inkjet printer to make 3D illusions" was originally published by TechHive.

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