Are you old enough to remember pestering your parents to fork out $5 for you to stand in a queue for 30 minutes to have two minutes floating around in one of these?

A photo of two people in the dactyl nightmare VR system

Naturally, as a ten-year-old, those two minutes felt like 10 seconds and I absolutely HAD to have another go. My poor dad looked at his watch, the line and firmly dragged my brother and I in another direction.

Recently a friend was trying to stir me up, and said:

Yeah, but isn’t 3D printing just going to be the new virtual reality?

… implying that consumer 3D printing is just some sort of entertaining fad that excites ten-year-olds, and bores parents to tears. Bound to lurk around for a few years and disappear. I immediately rallied to the defence of 3D printing and rattled off all the typical defences.

BZZT. I was wrong. Consumer 3D printing IS the new virtual reality. Wait, don’t turn away in disgust. Let me explain.

Virtual reality was never really a fad, and it never really died. Sure you don’t see the above Dactyl Nightmare machines lurking around in shopping centres anymore, but elements of virtual reality are everywhere today. Sure we have the Oculus Rift, and long before that most gaming graphics cards supported a stereoscopic 3D mode that you could couple with a set of 3D glasses like these from Nvidia 3D.

But virtual reality is a term that encompasses a lot more than head tracking and a couple of small screens mounted in glasses. The whole idea of a 3D virtual environment that you can move around in? You are probably reading this article now on a device capable of that task. Computers, smart phones, tablets and gaming consoles are all capable of generating immersive 3D environments. Sure they may not have the immersive fidelity of an Oculus Rift paired with a really expensive computer, but you can still easily ‘lose yourself’ in a virtual reality generated by a gaming console.

You see, what happened in the early 90’s was that some really clever Texans got together and created an imaginary ‘virtual reality’ where you awoke in a prison and had to escape your Nazi captors. Yes, I’m talking about the game Wolfenstein 3D. It ran on cheap hardware available to large portion of the population. Wolfenstein 3D sparked decades of consumer hardware and software innovation that made those original virtual reality machines cumbersome, expensive and obsolete.

The exact same thing is happening in 3D printing today. We have these huge, expensive, high fidelity 3D printers (the ‘Dactyl Nightmares’) being superseded by smaller, cheaper, lower fidelity 3D printers (like the 386 powered machines that could run Wolfenstein)

We are still in the Wolfenstein days of consumer 3D printing, maybe Doom at best. I for one am totally excited that 3D printing is ‘the new virtual reality’, and I cannot wait to see what sort of products and technology evolve from two decades of consumer innovation. Oh boy, the 3D printing equivalent of sitting down to play ‘Rage’ on an Xbox 360? How could you not be excited by a future filled with that?


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