Search engines have come to define how most of us interact with digital information. But, if you think about it, they’re still pretty limited. We can search for words and, in recent years, Google Images allows us to search by picture. Want to search, though, for the flavor of apple, or the notes of the song you can’t remember the name to? You’re still out of luck. However, researchers are making headway in another kind of novel search — searching by 3-D object. And that’s only going to become more useful in a world with growing access to 3-D printers. Printing the Future From candy to jawbones to high heels, 3-D printing has finally found its way into the mainstream. With Maker Labs gracing public libraries, museums and schools, the everyday person has access to a technology that was once only reserved for industry use. The new website 3Dshap.es aims to collect all these 3-D files on the web in one place, allowing users to search for specific shapes and file types. The website, which is still in beta, is the work of a team of innovators at the UK-based 3DIndustri.es, including CEO Seena Rejal, and Michael Groenendyk, business librarian and researcher at Concordia University in Montreal. As a librarian, Groenendyk has extensive experience setting up Maker Spaces. He noticed many of the people using the labs lacked 3-D design skills and needed pre-made files to work with. But, locating the right file online was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. “There’s all these little small pockets of 3-D models all over the Internet,” he says. “But, to actually piece that together was really challenging.” In addition, Groenendyk realized that traditional text-based search engines do not work well for 3-D models, something that Rejal had also noted. "Simply put, 3-D data and content demands 3-D search,” Rejal says. “You can't describe many shapes around you, or what you want, with words — so you need a new way to explore and find the content you want.” Beyond Google Unlike traditional search engines, 3Dshap.es uses a 3-D shape-match algorithm to sort through content based on size and dimension. You can upload your own 3-D model to find similar creations, or use the website’s specialized text search function. Search results are sorted by file type, size and, in the future, by license. And, you can visually filter your search by selecting the image that most resembles what you’re looking for and clicking “Search With This Model.” “So, you start with these broad keywords and really narrow it in to these specific physical details,” Groenendyk says. The team hopes the website will make 3-D printing more accessible and less intimidating to the public. “It’s trying to get that usage to the everyday person, that broader reach,” Groenendyk says. The Future is Now As younger generations grow up with 3-D printing technologies at their fingertips, the industry may finally move beyond novelty and into necessity. Its developers hope 3Dshap.es will be one of the first steps in organizing what already exists. “As the web infrastructure and devices we hold in our hands become more powerful and capable, 3-D data creation and transmission are ballooning too, and this poses interesting big data challenges in the space,” Rejal says. “The rise of 3-D printing has further exacerbated this. And a new tech-savvy generation are emerging that demand an evolution in interaction with this data and the web.” So, if you’re ready to move beyond custom bobbleheads, 3Dshap.es might be the perfect place to dabble in design and take your 3-D printing skills to the next level. And, who knows, in the future you may venture there the next time your bicycle needs a tune-up.
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