Winter Tech

Steamworks R&D

Despite not being formally trained, Oregon-based artist Steve La Riccia uses cast-off hardware and technology from bygone decades to design and build truly incredible and totally-functional contraptions.

Photos hardly do justice to these kinetic works of interactive art. Consider “Wozniak’s Conundrum” – it’s a steampunk vision of what would happen if a classic 90’s Macintosh had a child with an 1800’s Remington typewriter. But amazingly it’s also a working computer: the Remington keys ingeniously wired into the Mac, a Morse code telegraph key serving as a mouse and bronze tubing carrying pressurized steam throughout the works, driving a tiny steam motor that’s mounted upon the power supply.

Or check out Oppenheimer’s Enigma, a neon-festooned embodiment of both the fear and the wonderment engineered during the cold war. It incorporates not only a steam engine, a rotary phone that looks like it might ring the Kremlin, and a tiny flickering display showing a live video feed of the machine’s inner workings, but incredibly the entire mechanism is built within and upon a functional Graphotype machine that has been stamping custom “dog tags” as far back as WWII – and which still works today.

La Riccia’s other creations do everything from serving drinks to reading fortunes. His work is currently on display at New Zone Gallery in Eugene, Oregon and collected in his book “Steamworks R & D Labs,” although if you have a chance to experience them in person, you shouldn’t miss it.

Panic Software

Portland’s own Panic, Inc. is the little software company with the big heart. Their elegant, utilitarian apps have a way of taking an onerous task – like, say, shuttling files over FTP (Transmit) or connecting to the strange, hoary world of Usenet (Unison) – and making the experience smooth, powerful, intuitive… even fun.

“Fun” might be a strange word for utility software, but maybe that’s why Panic seems like they’ve almost come from a parallel universe; one where acronym-heavy feature checklists and the joy of a brilliantly simple new workflow are not mutually exclusive ideals. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that they’ve won as many Apple Design Awards as any other company in history. Or that many of the team also work on video games, including Space Age and The Incident for IOS as well as the forthcoming Firewatch for Mac and PC.

Taking to heart the adage that design isn’t about how something looks, but how it works, Panic’s design is often imitated but never duplicated. Their lovable software for the Mac as well as the iPad and iPhone is, in many ways, in a league of its own.

3D Printing

Various forms of 3D printing have long been used to build rapid prototypes for manufacturing. But as prices on consumer 3D printers come down, they’re increasingly useful for making 3D artwork, replacement parts for home appliances, custom phone cases or jewelry, and even custom-fit implants and other medical applications.

How do they work? Popular home 3D printers are similar in some ways to traditional inkjet printers – but instead of ink, a specialized nozzle deposits dots of heated plastic on a flat surface, to create the first layer or “slice” of the model. Once that slice cools, the printer starts building the next one on top of it.  Gradually, one thin layer at a time, a 3-dimensional object is built from the ground up.

MakerBot, one company at the forefront of the home 3D printing revolution, has several popular models between $1,000 and $3,000 that are among the most robust and easiest to use. Or, enterprising do-it-yourselfers can build their own, with kits and designs from a variety of providers – these start at a couple hundred dollars, although a good bit of time and engineering know-how is required to piece them together.

Home 3D printers are still limited by the materials they can build from, their slow output, and inability to print particularly large objects. It’s here that companies like Shapeways can still fill a niche; their workshops can use larger and more precise printers to build objects from a variety of materials on-demand, and at scale, and ship the results to you. Or you can even build a storefront with them and sell your designs to other enthusiasts.

Ever since the Replicators and Holodecks of Star Trek, we’ve fantasized about computers materializing objects for us on command. The advent of affordable home 3D printers and high-level 3D print-on-demand services may be poised to finally bring that dream to reality.

About The Author: DC Rahe

Contributing Editor

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