In 1981, I was doing a study on printers, and I came across a prototype from Fujitsu of a laser printer that could fit on the desktop. In those days, most laser printers were the size of a small closet, so in my final report, I added a line that suggested desktop printers could have a major impact on the publishing world.
I have been told by many that this appears to be the first reference to the concept of desktop publishing, and two years later Apple licensed this technology from Fujitsu and created its first laser printer. Once Apple linked it to Pagemaker, desktop publishing was born, and this put the Mac on the map and accelerated Apple’s position in computing substantially.
I believe Apple may be poised to do for 3D printing what it did for desktop publishing, given a recent patent I saw pop up on a U.K. news site. I have been fascinated by 3D printers ever since HP showed me a prototype of one about eight years ago. At that time, they were really expensive and actually pretty primitive, but it gave me a glimpse into the concept and allowed me to dream of what they could do in the future.
Today you can buy a basic 3D printer for about US$1,000-US$1,500. The low-end printers are great for makers and hobbyists. But small businesses can use them to prototype products that eventually can be manufactured for broader use by all types of customers.
The folks at the Daily Mail uncovered an Apple patent that I think is quite interesting, and needs to be watched closely. It talks about a new way Apple could integrate lasers into its mobile products to map images.
According to the story, “Apple’s patent suggests the lasers could be mounted behind existing openings like the camera … or have its own dedicated opening in the side of the phone that would then be pointed at walls or objects. The laser would be mounted inside the iPhone and used together with the in-built motion sensors to generate a map of any surface it is pointed at. An iPhone-mounted sensor would detect any light bounced back to the device and provide information about the surfaces of objects around it. This would allow the iPhone to be used to measure distance and create 3D maps of rooms and even buildings – something that currently requires bulky equipment.”
Given Apple’s past, I believe Apple may place a solid bet on 3D image capture innovation, and take advantage of the trends in 3D printers that are poised to go beyond the world of hobbyists as early as the next holiday season. I would not even be surprised if it sells a branded 3D printer. And depending how Apple goes after this market, it could actually become a new profit center that would help contribute to an eventual trillion-dollar valuation, something that could happen within the next three years.
However, if Apple shows its hand on this soon I don’t think the rest of the market will sit back as it did during the first four years of desktop publishing. Acer this week already introduced the Aspire V 17 Nitro notebook, which is equipped with Intel’s RealSense technology, an evolution of the webcam that can sense depth and dimension, allowing neat tricks like 3D scanning of objects, gesture controls in mid-air, and more.
I am not sure if Apple could ever replicate the success it had with desktop publishing via 3D printing, but this patent suggests that Apple is at least thinking of ways to link 3D to a whole host of apps and even large and small 3D printers in the future, which could help distinguish itself from the competition.