Interview with me by Autodesk: “3D Printing Dinosaurs: The Future of the Past”

Autodesk, in the small slice of my world, makes Catch123, the great free app we use to make 3D captures on our iOS devices. They recently asked me for an interview to talk about my work at the Museum. It’s a little irreverent, and almost too embarrassingly flattering for me to share, but I think the content is important and worth passing on. You can read the original here or the highlights below:

3D Printing Dinosaurs: The Future of the Past

Posted by on September 11, 2013

Every so often we encounter people who end up stunning us with their ingenuity in the use of Autodesk’s 123D products. Check out the video above, and you’ll know right away what we’re talking about. As you can imagine, once we saw what Barry Joseph was doing with 3D-technology at the American Museum of Natural History, we knew we had to go to the source to find out more.

Fortunately for everyone, Barry was willing to share his time with us so that we could dive deeper into the cool projects he’s been working on. If you think about it, Barry is the reason why we do what we do: his creativity and desire to bequeath his knowledge onto the next generation inspires us to continue making the highest-quality, most accessible tools for him and those he teaches.

You may remember our interview with another paleontologist, Matt Christopher from a few months ago. Once you read on to see what Barry has to say about 3D technology, paleontology, and Indiana Jones, it will be confirmed that working with dinosaurs bones is pretty much the coolest job ever.

Which is your favorite dinosaur?

Chicken.

How are you using 3D technology (capturing, modeling, printing) in your line of work?

We bought our first 3D printer (a MakerBot 2) this past January and spent Winter learning how to print found-objects from Thingiverse and create our own (like a simian skull) with 123DCatch. Convinced we could test its educational affordances within a two-week long summer program, we tested the concept by entering our Big Bone room and working with an Allosaurus’ femur. The test worked: it took 20 minutes for two of us to get three strong captures, and another 30 to combine then into one print-ready fossil. We felt that was quick enough to scale into an educational program, and the learning curve we had to climb was within reach for high school youth.

What problems does 3D technology help you address?

Both capturing and modeling helps us to teach youth how to closely observe. Printing allows youth to touch and manipulate the untouchable. No one would ever give teens glue guns and ask then to combine real dinosaur fossils into a scientific model to demonstrate how they might have pursued prey or walked. But with 3D printers, we could do the next best thing.

Do students and younger people have a natural affinity towards learning 3D technologies?

That’s hard to say. Is the current generation somehow more pre-disposed to problem solving in virtual 3D spaces than my own? I don’t know. What I can say is that they seem to come with more of an open-mind (adults seeing our six printers often nervously quip about whether I can now print guns). And many (not all) have tremendous experience navigating 3D environments in high-end video games. At the same time, the most common response I get from adults who learn of our programs is, “Where can I sign up?”

Do you think 3D technology is accessible to all skill levels and ages?

Eventually, yes. Sure, I can point to the 8 year-old whose Kickstarter campaign for a Thanksgiving-themed Chanukah menorah (both holidays coincide this year) began with him developing the model in the web-based Tinkercad then printing it on a Makerbot. Or my son when he was 5 designing a clock in SketchUp for his little sister’s dollhouse. Or my 13-year old twin cousins who learned in just a few minutes how to use 123Dcatch on their iPhones so they could bring home their own 3D photos of our Museum’s dioramas. But that would be misleading.

The physical tools are pricey and clunky and the digital tools are free and, while miraculous, you still get what you pay for. I am confident the costs will come down, reliability will go up, and learning curves will smooth out – but until then you have to be willing to geek-out now and again if you want to get involved with digital fabrication.

Have any of the students ever discovered something about the fossils that your team missed?

No, but that would be crazy if they did. I am almost tempted to say they did just to start a new meme. Can you picture it? “Hey, did you hear some kids using 3D printers learned something about dinosaurs missed by the experts?” But of course, that is not the point. While scientists at the Museum and elsewhere DO use 3D scanners and modeling programs to advance science, when we put these tools in the hands of youth we are not asking them to contribute to science but to simulate what scientists do and their scientific practices. Even though they are working with real fossils, they are still far removed from the sophisticated skills developed by paleontologists to properly view and bring meaning to them.

How was your experience using 123D Catch?

123D Catch is so awesome. It relies on so much existing knowledge – how to turn on an iPhone, how to take a photo, etc. – that the digital fabrication components are relatively easy to teach and master. Youth need to learn the direction to take the photos, how much of the screen to fill with the image, and how to embrace background noise. But that’s fairly easy. It still takes about two tries from a beginner to get a decent capture, and about 10 – 20 or so attempts before you can consistently get what I’d considered an excellent capture. And that’s pretty good.

Do you have any tips or tricks for people just getting started with 3D technologies?

Read everything you can online, try things out, then watch videos, then read some more, then try more things out, then find a listserv or community where you can ask questions. Make something new and give it to someone you love.

What’s next for 3D printing in your lab?

There are so many options on the table. We’ll see what pans out over the next six months. Capturing Mammals, perhaps? We’re already taken Capturing Dinosaurs to our Night at the Museum sleepovers, and planning for the World Maker-Faire NYC next week. Digital fabrication in our youth research programs, perhaps, and for the public in our learning lab. And more… but that’s all I can say for now.

 

And finally…Pick one: Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park?

Indie, of course, as the character of Jones is inspired (albeit indirectly) by American Museum of Natural History’s former director, dinosaur bone hunter, and adventurer-extraordinaire Roy Chapman Andrews (look it up!).

 

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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