I found My Robot Nation in the bustling corner of the Maker Faire expo hall dedicated to 3D printers. A glass display case full of 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-inch tall robots gave the booth a cohesive identity missing in its neighbors, which had all kinds of plastic objects on tables and display shelves. Ironically, though, the most interesting models My Robot Nation was showing off didn't look much like robots at all. Two of the site's users managed to build Albert Einstein and Batman nemesis Two-Face in the My Robot Nation WebGL modeler.
It obviously took a lot of tinkering to build such un-robot-like characters in a piece of software designed to make cute little robot statues. They were so good, the My Robot Nation team had to look at the bots and reverse-engineer them to figure out how those designs came out of their editor. I immediately started dreaming of the possibilities of a Grim Fandango bot.
Maker culture thrives on creativity, and 3D printing has boomed because it so dramatically lowers the entry point for turning virtual renders into tangible objects. We're getting close to the point where having a 3D printer at home is actually affordable for millions of people, but that's obviously not quite the case yet. Which is why I think My Robot Nation is such a cool little service: it allows you to gift someone a robot and command them to build. It's essentially a blank check for creativity. The product of their imagination shows up in a box a week later.
3D printing is good for building more than miniature robots, but My Robot Nation keeps things simple with a user-friendly modeling interface. I gifted a robot as a Christmas present last year and it was a big hit. This got me wondering: if the robot builder's a good entry point for people who can't print 3D objects themselves, would it be an equally useful tool for new 3D printer owners who find Blender and other CAD software hopelessly confusing?
I think so, and My Robot Nation seems to think so too. Back in April they were purchased by Cubify, a company that will start shipping the Cube printer this Friday, May 25. It's a $1300 3D printer with built-in Wi-Fi that aims to be a little less Maker-bot and a little more Easy-Bake Oven, at least in terms of accessibility. My Robot Nation hinted their editing software could work with the Cubify printer in the future, which would be golden functionality for any 3D printing household with a kid. Unfortunately the Cube's one-color-at-a-time printing would take some of the fun out of the design process, but it could also turn every robot into a craft project, a bit like model building and painting.
Cubify is doing some smart things with apps that other 3D makers should keep an eye on. For example, they have The Microforge, which allows you to print a variety of LEGO swords. There aren't many choices, but the potential for expansion there is enormous. How many kids would go crazy over the ability to make their own LEGO accessories?
My Robot Nation's editor is good enough to provide the building blocks for those kinds of creations. And being able to print over Wi-Fi at home, instead of waiting a week for a package or doing all the 3D modeling in CAD? That's when the barrier to 3D printing vanishes altogether.