For many computing devotees, there’s a nagging feeling that perhaps, just maybe, the world of computing is a bit detached. It’s fun and all, but there’s an unspoken notion that computing and IT tends to serve only itself, existing in a world completely distinct from the real, physical one that we actually live in. Computers are great at information processing and manipulation, which is why they’re the primary tool in this new-fangled information economy. But transactional databases and financial simulations of the South Sea Bubble aren’t exactly visceral, if you know what I mean.
At a push, you could theorise that the rise of the internet was initially driven by the computer people who finally saw a way for their otherwise completely abstract fascination to extend some tendrils into the real, properly graspable world. And in doing so, convince their girlfriend/boyfriend/immediate family that there was a point to it after all.
To many, though, the internet hasn’t quite scratched the itch. Have you ever been excited about taking your laptop into the park to surf the web wirelessly, then done so and been a bit disappointed? You sit yourself by the duck pond, open the laptop and realise that, actually, this is a terrible place to be checking your email and what you should really be doing is feeding the ducks. All you really get out of it is a warm lap and a fear of opportunist criminals.
My theory is that the duck-pond scenario happens because the natural longing to take abstract ideas out of the computer and into the real world can be mistaken for an urge to take the computer itself into the real world. To be truly satisfied, you need a way for your thoughts, which you converted into bits (digital bits that is), to be converted into atoms. Things. Stuff.
I stumbled across a website called eMachineShop (www.emachineshop.com) a few weeks back. It’s an old concept entirely transformed by its execution. What they do is, they make stuff. As in the type of stuff that’s surrounding you now: physical objects made of metal and plastic. Things that the average individual wouldn’t even consider making themselves, because they don’t have access to a £5,000 computer-aided-design package or a £200,000 CNC milling machine. The concept of eMachineShop is that you design your thing on eMachineShop’s free, custom-written CAD software, then simply click “order”. The design flies to them via the gift of the internet, and they make your thing and send it to you. Your thing. That you thought of. And that beats sitting by the duck pond any day.
A natural reaction is to be sceptical about the ability and inclination of people to design their own bits and bobs. At the minute, while ridiculously easy and cheap compared to using a top-end CAD package like AutoCAD and then trying to find somewhere to get it fabricated, getting a thing made using eMachineShop is time consuming and still relatively pricey compared to, say, going down the shops. There are stacks of little details to cope with, like which material you want to use: there are around 200 plastics, metals and composites to choose from, each with around 20 relevant properties such as tensile strength, corrosion resistance and thermal conductivity. Think you want to make something out of aluminium? You’ll need to choose from 15 different alloys first. It isn’t magic either: you can’t just design any shape you can think of and send it off to be made, as your design has to be adapted to the abilities of the fabrication machine (you have to choose that too). How many people are really going to bother with it? Enough to keep eMachineShop in business, I’m sure, but it’s hardly a mass-market proposition in the iPod sense of the word.