Hot technologies to watch: Augmented reality and 3D printing

JPL's Soderstrom shows Spacecraft 3D app at Premier 100

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Augmented reality and 3D printing are the hottest emerging technologies to watch, according to Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The impact of both technologies is already being felt with some new products, including a free augmented reality app in Apple's App Store called Spacecraft 3D. The app was built by JPL designers as an outgrowth of the Jet Propulsion Lab's "petting zoo" -- a development sandbox concept that JPL has had in five locations for four years.

In an interview at the Premier 100 conference here, Soderstrom showed how the Voyager and 10 other spacecraft look in the 3D app. With the app loaded on his iPhone, he focused its camera on a special card, and the 3D image of Voyager appeared on the smartphone's display, and could be rotated to look at all sides of the spacecraft. The image on the card was like the rough surface of a planet, and that same image can be downloaded and printed out -- eliminating the need for the card. The app will soon be available on Google Play for Android, Soderstrom said.

Soderstrom also demonstrated functional plastic tools, including a wrench and a gear that were produced with inexpensive 3D printers. Such printers can now cost $1,500 to $2,500, using a variety of materials, including sheets of highly durable manufactured sapphire, he said. Low-cost 3D printers are being made by MakerBot, Cubify and a number of companies that showed products at the International CES show in January, he said.

JPL engineers helped further develop 3D printing in JPL's five petting zoos, Soderstrom said.

Augmented reality allows computer-generated content to be superimposed over a live camera view of the real world.

Th first uses of augmented reality and 3D printing could be effective in education settings, Soderstrom said. Students could learn how tools and devices look and feel and how to design them with software.

He showed a hand-sized 3D model of the surface of the moon, which blind students can touch to gain an appreciation of the moon's rugged surface. "This model cost just 30 cents to make," he said.

Likewise, augmented reality can be used to enrich the learning experience about spacecraft and other technologies -- all from a student's smartphone or other portable device, Soderstrom said.

JPL engineers are also relying on the virtual world of Second Life to design JPL conference rooms, showing potential users and investors how they would look or could be modified. "Blueprints didn't work, but in Second Life they see how the lighting works, where the walls will be," Soderstrom said.

Soderstrom, a science evangelist of sorts for JPL, spending much of his time in schools explaining the significance of technology to coming generations. This is the second year he has attended Premier 100. He attracted a crowd of CIOs interested in innovations and ways they can promote innovation in their companies.

Soderstrom's purpose in going to schools is to preach about the need for more scientists and engineers. "We're going to need more engineers for all this new technology," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is

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