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Tech & Innovation
JUL 3, 2020

The Future of Household 3D Printing Will Mirror the Era of Digital-First Video Games

By Laura Abbott
iStock@scharfsinn86

Prior to the 1970s, few people thought computers would have a place in the average American home. Today, most people carry one around in their pocket, and our entire society is reliant on the power and convenience of computers.

3D printing is next. 

Though much of today’s hype surrounds industrial applications of 3D printing, we already have an almost perfect model of what at-home 3D printing could look like in the future: the video game industry.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The industries are similar because both require users to purchase expensive hardware (the printer or game console) and separately sold data (the design file or game software) to operate.

These two industries will grapple with similar problems because the way consumers connect hardware and data are nearly the same. Reviewing the main concerns in the video game industry allows us to decide how we will set precedents for the 3D printing era.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) Software

In 2013, gamers boycotted the Xbox One after Microsoft attempted to eliminate the purchase and trade of secondhand games. On the other hand in 2020, virtually the same restrictions are accepted with barely a peep of dissent.

Digital rights management (DRM) software was first implemented in response to piracy, the (usually online) practice of acquiring media without first purchasing it, or illegally distributing legally purchased media.

Because designs for 3D printers are a form of digital media, they will likely be governed by the same DRM laws and practices currently in place.

Imagine this: you’ve just come to a new city and would prefer to live in a house with the same layout as your last. Sadly, your new city’s construction design library doesn’t have that design license. Maybe the city exceeded the number of times that house was licensed to be printed. Or perhaps you, the consumer, are expected to purchase a private license to print your house’s design. (Doesn’t matter that you had the license for your “old” house—you’re in a different city now.)

Assembling the AMIE 3D-printed house. | Flickr@Oak Ridge National Laboratory

This may sound like science fiction, but it isn’t terribly far off. Houses are already being 3D printed, and as the practice becomes more widespread, the designs could easily fall under the same licensing conditions as e-books and video games.

This is because DRM works by granting licenses rather than ownership.

For example, Amazon can erase your e-books from your kindle on a whim. The Microsoft Store did exactly that and it’s been all but forgotten. If the servers of Steam—one of the world’s largest game distribution and DRM companies—blacked out permanently, almost all purchased content would suddenly be inaccessible. This is already happening with certain outdated DRM systems.

From games to appliances, the power of a centralized DRM regulation leaves an icky taste in many mouths—enough that campaigns like Defective by Design have cropped up to fight the very existence of DRM.

Huge media distributors winking out of existence and taking your media with them may sound extreme, so how about this: you need two extra plates for tonight’s dinner party, so you log into your favorite 3D printing digital distribution service. After pulling up the plate design to match your existing table setting, you discover that you’ve only been licensed to print four plates, all of which were printed last year. If you want more, you’ll have to buy a duplicate of the same license.

This is almost exactly how Microsoft tried (and failed) to license movies in 2013. If it happens with 3D printers, we run the risk of entering a far more dystopian scenario in which licensing fees don’t only apply to “wants” like entertainment, but also to “needs” like food and shelter.

A Contract-Based Workforce, or None at All

The workforce is changing dramatically in response to automation and AI, dissolving mid-level and routine jobs and forcing people into the gig economy, including video game developers.

Video games also rely heavily on freelance and contract-based employment for a variety of reasons, from streaming services like Twitch eating game publishers’ revenues to the simple fact that consumer pressure has kept the price of video games the same for nearly 10 years

Despite gamers’ outcry over developers being out of work once games are published, the reliance on contract employment is unlikely to change until consumers are willing to pay more for games.

The same will be true of 3D company design firms.

The time, effort, and cost needed for 3D printing today is high. You need a basic understanding of design and a level of comfort with machines—at a time when most people struggle to name any 3D modeling software off the top of their heads. Even when market consolidation lowers the cost of 3D printers enough make them household items, experts will still be needed to provide laymen with printing designs.

If designs are one-time purchases rather than subscriptions, design firms will become a lot like game publishers, who hire a studio or freelancer on contract to complete a specific project. After the product’s launch, the company has little incentive to keep freelancers on payroll.

By the time 3D printers are standard household appliances, there will be a further complication for those seeking in-house positions: AI.

Engineering and architecture firms already utilize parametric design software to plug in guidelines and churn out endless designs. It’s possible future design firms won’t have human designers at all—they may have AI instead. For better or worse, this will hugely impact the future of work.

Microtransactions

If, like many video games, 3D designs are sold with an unlimited-use model, design publishers of the future will have to implement another hated strategy of the gaming industry: microtransactions.

Gaming company Activision Blizzard made $3.4 bil from microtransactions in 2019 alone. | iStock@marchmeena29

Picture this: it’s 2045, and you’d like some chocolate chips in your cupcake. You input the request in your kitchen’s food printer, and there’s an error. Turns out chocolate chips aren’t a part of the cupcake design package you purchased. Would you like to add the compatible design alterations for a fee?

Right now, on-demand customization is the name of the game in the world of 3D printing. But customization is usually done manually with design software by someone experienced in both design and the relevant industry—architecture, engineering, food science, fashion, what have you. We may all have 3D printers in the future, but we can’t all be (or even have access to) design experts. As a result, the majority of us will rely on AI or experts who will want to be compensated. That compensation will come in the form of microtransactions.

Just as ubiquitous microwaves changed the eating habits of an entire country, food printers could eliminate cooking and food distribution as we know it. When enough people no longer know how to cook, food designers will have more freedom to increase the prices of their designs.

Video games have never been a necessity, but it’s possible we’re looking at a future where food, shelter, and clothing could all be 3D printed. Consumer tolerance of cosmetic microtransactions (such as adding chocolate chips to a cupcake) will likely have minimal societal harm. If we allow pay-to-play microtransactions on more crucial elements (such as paying extra to ensure your printed vegetables have the nutrition of a vegetable and not a potato chip), the impact on society may be a different story.

The New Information Age

Imagine capsule machines in grocery stores that print one-of-a-kind keychain accessories or candies.

Imagine customized food printed for individuals with allergies.

Imagine clothing sizes being a thing of the past—wedding suits and dresses printed the day of via measurements generated using depth-sensing cameras.

The world of 3D printing comes with fantastic possibilities, but there are nitty-gritty details between us and easy printing. Carefully considering the headaches of video games will prepare us for the trends and regulations of the 3D-printing era. Anything we don’t like, we’d better fight now. Our unthinking compliance sets precedents for more than just gaming.