Fortune on Personal Fabricators

Fortune writes about MIT's Neil Gershenfeld and his work at Center for Bits and Atoms: "Today your all-in-one device prints, scans, faxes and copies. Tomorrow it will cut, score, etch and sew. Want a new dining room chair? You'll design it on a PC and press PRINT, and your personal fabricator will create it for you right before your eyes. Just make sure tray No. 2 has enough wood." (via Make)

If you want to know more, check out Gershenfeld's recent book FAB. Rebang often writes about fabrication; here's a recent post about a shoe fabricated using a technology associated with rapid prototyping. Fabjectory is one company that prints out 3D objects from virtual worlds (games or Google Earth, for example) data: avatars, weapons, dragons. Here's a pic of some of their creations (more on Flickr).

What does this have to do with advertising? Here's a bit from an essay draft I wrote for Convergence Culture last month.

"The advances in technology, even that that is not ostensibly related to advertising but especially the technology of production and distribution of goods, will greatly influence the way these goods are advertised and here's one example. Yesterday, you would see an ad for a chair and head to the store to buy it. Today, you type in the store's URL, pay with a card and receive it in the mail in a few days. Tomorrow, you may be able to print the chair out on a 3-D printer that today is used for rapid prototyping of architectural and engineering models. The gratification will be truly instant as the time gap between seeing the ad and coming into possession of the goods disappears. How will instant manufacturing affect advertising practices? We can speculate that the ads for individual products will have to become more detailed, for example, if customers are to give up the comfort of having the opinions of friends and of having an opportunity to try the product in the store.

With the nature of merchandise reduced to a bucket of polymer dust and molding instructions, it is likely that chair manufacturers will face the problem well familiar to RIAA and MPAA. Once chairs and other things become content, the prospect of rampant chair piracy turns from unimaginable into very real.

The conversion of merchandise from contained and scarce atoms into ubiquitous bits, the idea described by Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital, will present marketers with another dilemma. Brands in their essence are meta-data that describe the ephemeral qualities of a physical product. Without these meta-data, the chair I am sitting on is just that, a chair. It’s black, has two adjustable arm-rests, it swivels, rotates and rolls when pushed. The Ikea label on it adds a data layer on the top of its intrinsic descriptors. Now it's a chair that has been created by a certain designer in Sweden, it has a name, and its perceived value will vary depending on whether the society has agreed that Ikea's furniture is stylish and hip or cheap and not very durable.

Advertising has traditionally focused on adding meta-layers to such physical products, from Burma Shave creams to Gillette five-blade razors, but it has yet to learn how to attach these layers to the products that are data themselves. The relative decline of importance of recording labels coincided with the digitalization of music that has unbundled and disembodied the product that was once incased in brandable vinyl, magnetic tape or CD plastic. The label loses its meaning when you cherry-pick the product parts and then mash them up with other bits to create a unique product whose only true brand is you. What happens to the music bits today will happen to the chair bits tomorrow when you are able to download the arm-rests from Ikea and the upholstery from Crate & Barrel, mix them up and print them out."
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