It’s May 4th, which means that the internet is full of Star Wars fans wishing each other “May the 4th be with you!” Before this unofficial holiday ends and we find ourselves having to deal with the Revenge of the 5th, we thought we’d take a look at some of the ways this particular pop culture phenomenon has influenced people in the tech world. Star Wars is one of those series that is more than just a movie – it’s inspired people like Holly Griffith, a Star Wars fan who channeled her love of space into a career as a NASA engineer. She sees Princess (General) Leia as a role model, as do so many girls and women, and believes that Star Wars fandom can steer kids towards an interest in science and technology from a young age.
Even for those who don’t end up as NASA engineers, Star Wars-inspired technology can have a huge impact on a person’s life. Just ask Jason Barnes, who lost his arm below the elbow after an accident at work. He now sports a 3D printed bionic arm that closely resembles that of Luke Skywalker, who lost his own arm in a tragic father-son duel and ended up with a pretty nifty replacement. At the time the movie came out, Luke’s arm was the picture of futuristic technology, an unrealistic fantasy in a time when prosthetics consisted of hooks or immobile hands designed for appearance only. Now, thanks to companies like Open Bionics, which created the design off which Barnes’ hand is based, this fantasy technology has become an actual reality.
“Star Wars LEGO’s are hugely popular and I think LEGO’s are a great way to get younger kids to start thinking more technically,” Griffith told ASME. “There’s even a show now called Science and Star Wars and some of the technology from the movie isn’t just fantasy anymore. Droids like R2D2 and BB-8 are inspiring droid-builders, or people who make their own droids. And we have Robonaut on the International Space Station now, who does some of the tasks for the astronauts. So if Star Wars got you into robotics, NASA is definitely a place for you.”
Open Bionics’ open source Hero Arm recently became the first 3D printed bionic arm to be medically approved, but even before that happened, children were proudly displaying their own Star Wars-themed prosthetic arms due to the hard work and ingenuity of e-NABLE, which specializes in prosthetics that kids will actually love wearing. The organization has held competitions to design Star Wars-themed prosthetics in the past, and has also developed prosthetic arms themed after Iron Man, Frozen, Batman and more. Missing a limb, especially losing one due to accident or illness, is naturally traumatic for a child, but e-NABLE has brilliantly harnessed the pop culture beloved by kids to make wearing a prosthetic something to be proud of.
As I’m writing this, a little 3D printed BB-8 is watching me from the shelf above my desk. He’s one of the first things I ever 3D printed, and he’s a little rough around the edges – he doesn’t stand up and swivel the way he was supposed to, and his paint job isn’t the greatest. But I made him myself, and so he represents an early tech triumph along with some happy nerding-out I did when The Force Awakens came out. I had 3D printed some other things already, but this was my favorite little project so far, and made me really enjoy what 3D printers could do. Indeed, even BB-8’s creator, Matt Denton, is a prolific maker fond of 3D printing for his own projects.
That’s the case with many people, adults and children alike, who are exploring new technology for the first time. We may lament the number of 3D printed Yodas in the world as an example of 3D printing falling short of its potential, but it’s a fact that when people begin making things, they gravitate toward what they love – and maybe move on to bigger things later. How many people got their start in 3D printing by making Star Wars toys, then ended up running their own 3D printing startups or moving on to prosthetics?
There are few better ways to get kids interested in 3D printing than by engaging their interests, which is why companies like 3Doodler are smart to tie in their products with franchises like the Powerpuff Girls, for example. But plenty of adults, too, have honed their considerable skills on Star Wars replicas or costuming as well as on heartwarming projects for their children. People were wowed at CES a couple of years ago by a full-sized 3D printed Stormtrooper, printed on 3D Systems 3D printers by costume and prop retailer Anovos. Star Wars may be something of a gateway into 3D printing for many, but it’s more than that, providing a template for displaying what the technology is capable of.
There’s such a crossover between science fiction fandom and technology like 3D printing, robotics and virtual reality, because these technologies still seem like the things of science fiction – and, in some cases, they have actually been used to make sci-fi concepts real, like Luke Skywalker’s arm. Virtual reality lets us live out our sci-fi fantasies, using some of the very technology that only a few years ago was fantasy itself.
If you’re wanting to celebrate May the 4th yourself, 3D printing style, you can find a list of ideas for things to 3D print here, or here, or here. Star Wars is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to 3D printing and to tech in general – who knows, you may just find yourself on a path to NASA. May the 4th be with you.
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