The last thing anyone expected from virtual reality was the ability to create things that can live in the real world, but that's exactly what Oculus delivered last week with the release of Oculus Medium.
Although we've shown how the app allows you to sculpt in VR — in the same vein as Google's paint-in-midair VR app Tilt Brush — what may not be obvious to many is that anything you create in the app can instantly exported to an .obj file (the standard format for virtual 3D objects) that can then be sent to most 3D printers for fabrication.
And, just like that, VR has cleared perhaps the number one hurdle that has stymied many would-be 3D-printing enthusiasts: the often steep learning curve associated with traditional 3D apps. Now, instead of being faced with months of training to use the very basics of CAD (computer-aided design) apps, Oculus Medium allows you to use the tools you're already an expert with — your hands — to craft almost anything your mind can come up with.
And once your creation is done, preparing the object (jewelry, toys, tools, accessories, for example) for 3D printing is as simple as pressing an export button and sending the file to your 3D printer.
For years now, passionate advocates of 3D printing like Bre Pettis, the co-founder of MakerBot, watched as 3D printing devices finally became consumer-friendly only to see the often brilliantly designed, compact 3D printers go ignored by mainstream users not already steeped in the tools of the professional design world. There are never guarantees when it comes to app-powered culture shifts, but Oculus Medium looks like 3D printing's best bet to move from niche hobby to common tool.
"It's definitely something that looks more consumer-friendly than anything else I've seen before, and it will definitely open up the content pipeline." -Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and co-founder of Shapeways
"I knew from the beginning that [3D printing] would get easier and easier over time, and in some of my presentations I've talked about a VR being an avenue that would open the content pipeline," says Peter Weijmarshausen, the co-founder and CEO of Shapeways, a company that takes anyone's 3D object file and prints in plastic and an assortment of metals.
"So I saw this coming, and I'm really excited to see that Oculus has released Medium. My first impression is that it's definitely something that looks more consumer-friendly than anything else I've seen before, it will definitely open up the content pipeline. And if the content is easy to create, then more and more people will start using [3D printing], and that's why I'm super excited about it."
Adding to the excitement around the app, just days after the app's launch, the Oculus team soft launched a community for Medium, designed to focus the sudden enthusiasm around the app's users. And while many of those posting samples of their work online aren't professional artists, the resulting creations already demonstrate the promise of what's possible from untrained 3D design dabblers. And for those who are CAD veterans, the examples of what they can achieve illustrate just how powerful Oculus Medium is.
Of course, much of potential for VR-to-3D printing gaining traction also depends on if VR itself can penetrate the mainstream.
"At the very beginning most of my thinking was focused on video game and film artists modeling," says Brian Sharp, the Director of Oculus Medium and one of the engineers behind the project.
"I remember telling a bunch of people back in mid 2013, before most people had even seen a VR headset, that in the future, at video game companies, there are going to rooms that the artists go into and put these things on their faces to model [games in 3D] and people were like 'that sounds crazy, you sound like an insane person.' That was the genesis, and then as we started working on it, it turned into 'can we bring this to the masses?'"
If Oculus Medium were backed by almost any other platform, we might call it a tossup. But with Facebook pushing hard to bring VR hardware and software to its over one billion users, betting against VR, at least on the Oculus platform, is probably not the smartest idea.
If you thought 3D printing was just for hobbyists and design pros, Oculus Medium willchange your mind.