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Remix Culture Comes To Physical Objects With The Remix Project

Forget about just remixing music and film. With 3D printing and scanning, we’ll all be remixing our furniture in no time.

by Kevin Holmes
05 July 2012, 8:30pm

Remix culture is everywhere. If you're a digital native, it's in your cultural DNA, and as Kirby Ferguson has noted, to create is essentially to remix. Sure, the old guard might be against it, but no matter how much hate they direct towards it, it's here to stay. And it's going to evolve.

As the line between the virtual and physical blurs, and as 3D printing and scanning technologies become more ubiquitous and accessible, this mashup mindset will emigrate from the digital realm of music files and online videos into the land of physical objects. You’ll no longer just remix a song or supercut a funny movie cliche. You’ll also merge a designer chair with another one. Or a cup with an ornamental dancing gremlin. Or whatever you want! We’ll all be like Doctor Moreau, except without the bloody vivisection and mutilation of animals. Instead, we’ll mutilate objects' files before printing them into existence.

This remixing and mashing of physical objects has already begun. Using scanned files of the Met museum’s classical sculptures found on Thingiverse, hackers remixed the classics. Coinciding with that project is another one from a freshly minted RCA London grad, Ben Alun-Jones, who has been working on a similar idea that remixes physical objects called Remix.

His project presents a new way for people to scan and sample parts of an object, which can then be used in a physical remix. “The scanning is done using a SLAM algorithm,” Alun-Jones told me via Skype. “That stands for ‘simultaneous location and mapping,’ so there’s no position sensors or anything. The position of the camera can be worked out from the video stream directly.” The device is also pretty simple to use, having just a scan button, a reset button, and a save button, along with remix software that he’s developing and hopes to release as open-source later in the year.

Scanning the object creates a mesh of points, and once any holes are filled in, it can be sent to a 3D printer, CNC machine, or any digital fabricator. “From the meshes, you can take samples (slices of the object), which you can then mash together automatically,” notes Alun-Jones. He’s already joined forces with some experts—fashion designers, visual communications people, product designers, and a sculptor—to develop the project, and aims to take it to the London Design Festival in September. After this, he plans to develop it into an app.

Remix chair made from scans of a Thonet Bentwood chair, a Panton plastic chair, and an Eames RAR Rocking Chair.

You may be sitting there thinking, why would you want to do this? Why ruin someone’s perfectly good work? Well, someone asked him just that about his remix chair (above) saying, “Don’t you think you’ve ruined the integrity of all these classic chairs?” His reply was, “Well yeah, but that’s the point.” He elaborated further on this sentiment, saying, “It’s very exciting, really, to be able to try to push the technology to do things I wouldn’t by myself have imagined and it’s all about developing a platform rather than a single object.”

The scanner is to Alun-Jones’ craft what a sampler is to music production, and he sees it as the first key tool in bridging the digital/physical divide. It’s about opening up people’s creativity and giving novices access to something they can use to engage with this technology, allowing them to personalize products like they would a musical track.

As he says, “My definition of remixing is sampling pre-existing materials to create new combinations according to personal taste. I think the personal taste part is key. I’m trying to open up the power of 3D printers.” Remixing for him is natural human behavior—it’s just taken us a while to figure it out: “I just think we only really realized it through the technical advances of music, which sped up the process, so it became clear.”

Objects already reference other objects, and Alun-Jones believes digital fabrication will enhance this. By connecting 3D scanning to printing directly and easily, he aims to help facilitate the accessibility through cheap technology, so people with limited technical experience can engage with it. Noting how people in their bedrooms produce genre-defying music using samplers, synthesizers, and mixers, he believes we need similar tools to make use of 3D printing.

This burgeoning field of remix culture could also open up interesting combinations, mixing different disciplines. He uses the example of bridges, saying that they are huge engineering challenges, but once the engineering has been done, you can use the model and scale it up or down to become a detail in a new product. “Open source software creates modules that can be put together, mixed, and reused,” he says, “And I think that, as objects become more digital and digitally produced, this modularity will come more to the fore, and mixing functional, aesthetic, and even natural forms together will become easier.”

As well as the accessibility and the inevitable experimental phase where we’ll probably produce all kinds of ugly crap, another important aspect to this revolution, along with low cost 3D printers, is the material we use to print. “I think that the key part comes when recycling hits a level that it becomes easier (and more affordable) to rework stuff infinitely,” says Alun-Jones.

So, who knows, in a few years we could all be remixing furniture and objects just as readily as we remix music.


3D scanning
Ben Alun-Jones