Robot Picasso: Maker Transforms Failed 3D Printer into Cubist Drawing Machine

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Solidoodle Press 3D printer.

Solidoodle Press 3D printer.

Last year, scores of 3D printer fans were disappointed when promising startup Solidoodle closed its doors, leaving several customers without the printers they had ordered or refunds for their orders. Those customers ended up being compensated thanks to New Matter, which offered its own 3D printers to them for free, but there was still a great deal of discouragement at the loss of what many believed would be a longstanding and successful company.

James Novak wasn’t one of the customers left without a printer; he was one of the first to order the new Solidoodle Press, introduced in August of 2014. Unfortunately, the Solidoodle Press was one of the catalysts for the company’s eventual closure, as overseas manufacturing and labor disputes led to a printer with loads of quality issues. Novak discovered this shortly after receiving his printer. An experienced user of 3D printers, Novak did his best to get his new machine to produce quality prints, but he finally gave up.

“The hardware was just poor quality,” he tells 3DPrint.com. “That was the end for the Solidoodle Press as a 3D printer for me, I had already bought 2 new printers since then and even if the Solidoodle Press worked perfectly, it was probably a bit outdated compared to my new printers.”

Not wanting to waste his investment in the printer, however, Novak wanted to find some sort of use for it – even if that use didn’t relate to 3D printing. Already an expert tinkerer and maker who showed off his skill with a customizable 3D printed bicycle a few years ago, Novak is now a PhD student at Australia’s Griffith University, and his studies have recently taken him into new areas such as coding and electronics, which he applied to a new project involving his Solidoodle Press.

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“…I began to tinker with the printer; first finding a way to manually control the X, Y and Z axes using a Nintendo Wii game controller (demo here), and eventually finding a way to use the printer like an old 2D plotter, drawing on paper with a pen,” he tells us. “This was initially demonstrated at the ACM SIGCHI Designing Interactive Systems conference in 2015, where the modified 3D printer was combined with some algorithms that allowed it to draw cubist-style portraits of people as they posed in front of a webcam (blog post here). All I needed was to print a new attachment for the extruder head to hold a pen rather than a hot extruder – anyone could make one! I initially started by using rubber bands and zip ties, and once the system was working took the key measurements into CAD. The commands to draw are the same as 3D printing – G-code.”

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Attendees at the ACM SIGCHI Designing Interactive Systems admire Robot Picasso. [Image: James Novak]

People began telling Novak about their own 3D printers-gone-wrong, motivating him to publicize his own project as a way to inspire others with ideas on how to repurpose their old machines, or even modify their working printers with new features. He heard about Kickstarter’s Make/100 initiative, which calls on makers to run limited Kickstarter campaigns, capped at 100 backers, as a way to jump-start new creative projects. It was a perfect platform for Novak’s project, so he tweaked his machine a bit more and launched it on Kickstarter as Robot Picasso.

“Backers are able to email me any photo they choose, Robot Picasso will observe it like a cubist artist, create a 2D drawing, and then draw it using the modified Solidoodle Press,” he tells us. “The process is just as mesmerizing as watching a 3D printer, and seems to have struck a chord with the public with the project now over 200% funded! Managing my first Kickstarter is exciting in itself, but the real reward for me is turning what was quite a negative experience with the Solidoodle Press into something positive that is inspiring others to think more creatively about awesome technologies like 3D printing.”

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The campaign may have exceeded its funding goal, but it’s still a long way from reaching its 100-backer limit, so you can still sign on! Rewards, in addition to receiving your own Cubist portrait, include an ebook full of other drawings by Robot Picasso, a file of your personal drawing so that you can add color or otherwise modify it, and video of your drawing being produced. You can see how the process works below:

Discuss in the Robot Picasso forum at 3DPB.com.

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