The King of 3D printing kicks off a SXSW focused on the physical world

MakerBot's 3D Printer the Replicator2

Austin, Texas — Wearing a textured black jacket from cyberpunk-designer Sruli Recht, and repeating the word “awesome” throughout his hour-long talk, the CEO of 3D printing company MakerBot, Bre Pettis, told an audience of thousands of geeks at the annual SXSW Interactive Festival on Friday afternoon that “It is the best time to get into hardware.”

For the past few years, SXSW — which is like the tech industry’s Spring Break fueled by BBQ, beer and the latest startups — has acted as a platform for a variety of social media and mobile apps to launch and gain mind share. Twitter famously broke out in SXSW in 2007. But at SXSW this year, as the New York Times noted this week, it looks like it’s hardware’s turn in the spot light.

Hot hardware

The Replicator 2, 3D printer, by MakerBot

The Replicator 2, 3D printer, by MakerBot

As rain drizzled down outside the Austin convention center and marketers handed out logo-laden bright ponchos to conference-goers, Pettis used the opportunity of his opening remarks at the show to unveil his company’s new 3D scanner called the MakerBot Digitizer. He referred to the Digitizer as the “washer and dryer” partner to MakerBot’s 3D printer the Replicator 2, and described the Digitizer’s 3D scanning process as “like what happens in Tron when Flynn gets digitized.”

The device, which is supposed to be out in the Fall, will give creators and makers another tool to move designs from the physical world, to the digital world, and back again. While professional designers and artists have high-end machines that do this, the Digitizer is meant to bring this capability to the DIY movement. The Digitizer uses a camera to scan the device as it rotates, the digital design of the 3D object is captured, and the Replicator 2 can replicate the object, or a tweaked version of the object.

A monster created by the MakerBot

A monster created by the MakerBot

Pettis also used his talk to announce that design giant Autodesk is now selling MakerBot’s 3D printers, giving the startup access to Autodesk’s large customer network, and adding some heft to the 3D printer movement. Pettis, who was introduced before his talk as the “King of the 3D printing revolution,” launched MakerBot as a company at SXSW in 2009. (To read more about 3D printing check out our research report on GigaOM Pro, subscription required).

Makers, creators and devices

As Stacey Higgenbotham predicted earlier this week, SXSW Interactive 2013 is all about the DIY maker movement and 3D printing. Across the street from the convention center, Autodesk is hosting a large “Create” space that’s highlighting inventors, and tinkerers and the devices that they’ve developed.

Of course under the Create tent, Autodesk and MakerBot are showing off the Replicator 2, and Autodesk’s 3D printer software and applications, and they’ve even got a vending machine that’s selling 3D-printed monsters. Autodesk has an app called 123D Creatures that lets you make, and print out, monsters on your iPad; Autodesk can use these types of consumer-focused apps as both marketing, as well as to boost sales for its 3D printer software ecosystem.

Vending machine dispensing 3D printed monsters, by MakerBot, Autodesk.

Vending machine dispensing 3D printed monsters, by MakerBot, Autodesk.

Other devices under the Create tent include social good gadgets like the BioLite Stove, invented by Alexander Drummond and Jonathan Cedar, the “See Better to Learn Better” low cost eye glasses from Fuseproject’s Yves Behar, and the Embrace Nest baby warmer. Lytro was showing off a camera that was launched at SXSW 2012, and which captures the light field of photos, enabling users to focus on and interact with different parts of the picture.

The Lytro camera

The Lytro camera

In fact, in the few hours that the show has been open on Friday, I have yet to see a demo of or hear about a super hot social media or mobile app that’s blowing up at the show. But I have heard about 3D printable rocketships, new wearables from unusual players, and I got a brief demo this morning of the Misfit Shine from Misfit CEO Sonny Vu. I’m sure the digital-only apps and services are here at the show, but hardware and the physical world seem to be overshadowing them.

In a way, that makes sense. The Internet of Things is officially here, and super cheap sensors are enabling gadgets to use data to help us in our daily lives. At the same time, wearable technology like Google Glass is making the computing industry think in an entirely new way. A physical component is almost necessary to move the computing paradigm forward beyond tablets, smart phones, and laptops. And for the early-adopters at the SXSW show this year, that means they get the first change to play with these devices.

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