Makies Combines Digital and Physical Worlds with 3D Printed Toys

A UK-based startup is showing how 3D printing can completely change the face of playtime – literally. Makie Labs, founded by online game, app and TV producer Alice Taylor in February of last year, offers customers the chance to create their own virtual Makie avatar, and then have that avatar printed as a physical, posable 3D doll, complete with plenty of articulation and custom clothing options.

It’s a little like getting an Xbox Live avatar made into a physical form, but with a greater degree of control over the details of how it’ll turn out. If someone is skilled enough, they can probably create a Makie that’s a reasonable facsimile of themselves, thus making it possible to satisfy everyone’s childhood dream of having an action figure created after their own likeness.

Except that to describe a Makie as an action figure isn’t really adequate. Nor is calling it a doll. That’s because Taylor and her team spent a lot of time making sure that Makie doesn’t easily fit into traditional gender-based categories associated with children’s toys.

“It’s pretty safe to say that there are a lot of people in the world who really love playing with dolls, both male and female,” she said. “Right now, we’re selling more to guys than girls. When you go to the toy store, everything is gender-segregated.” That gender dichotomy in toys is perhaps best broken down by looking at the particularly polar examples of Barbie and G.I. Joe. Makies, by contrast, are designed to have wide appeal.

At this early “open alpha” stage of the product, during which users can order a Makie from a limited initial test pool, the dolls aren’t aimed at children. Taylor explained that targeting kids would’ve required a lot more in terms of initial expense, since it requires getting safety certifications and doing more in terms of design and prototype testing. But if the initial run of Makies works out, the sky’s the limit in terms of where Taylor and company can go next.

“The doll is definitely the central product for now, but what we’re building in the backend behind the whole process, is the ability to turn a polygonal computer model, the likes of which you’d see in a video game, into a 3D-printable model,” she said. “In terms of the external model and the internal working joints, the software can cope with anything. So it could be a robot, it could be a car, it could be a dinosaur, etc.”

The Makies will remain the focus for a while, however, as the team intends to try and bring the costs down on individual dolls (they currently go for £99, which, while more expensive than a Barbie from a local toy store, is also cheaper than many import figurines from Japan) and get them certified for kids’ use.

Other planned additions include more choices for clothing and accessories to go with the Makies (they feature interchangeable hands, so the possibilities are endless) and more tie-ins with the online community, where virtual Makie avatars can interact with one another and join in on social games. Lastly, Makies have enough room inside their heads to fit an Arduino development prototyping platform, meaning that adventurous souls can potentially program them in imaginative ways to interact with their environment.

3D printing is fast becoming something that’s more affordable and accessible than ever. While Makie Labs is working with suppliers who normally provide dental and architectural models for professionals, rather than using the type of small relatively affordable printers funded through Kickstarter recently, it’s still taking advantage of advances in the tech around 3D printing and what it can do via different software combinations. Taylor also noted that multiple patents related to the type of plastic used in the Makie printing process are about to expire, which could mean that Makies will get a significant price drop in the near future, giving them a much better chance of garnering mainstream success.

Makies makes one thing very clear; now that it’s possible to affordably and consistently create custom-built toys on demand, kids and grown-ups alike will never look back. And with toys that blend online and offline catching on, like what we’ve seen with the popular Skylanders video game/toy crossover, this is an exciting time for the toy-making business.

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