Researchers develop 3-D printed hair
Since the 1980s, 3-D printing has revolutionized the way models have been built. Within hours, artists and engineers now have the ability to transform their computer designs into real-life prototypes. 3-D printers have evolved to build a wide variety of objects, from acoustic guitars to models of a fetus before birth. Recently, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) have added another possibility to the list — 3-D printed hair.
Gierad Laput, a third year HCII PhD student and a member of the Future Interfaces Group (FIG), an interdisciplinary research laboratory within HCII that is focused on developing new sensing and interface technologies, was one of the researchers involved in the project.
“Essentially, I dream-up and build the next computer interface five, 10, or even 20 years from now,” stated Laput in an email to The Tartan. “I apply a lot of fabrication skills [in my] projects, so some of my research naturally falls into that category as well, which is why I was interested in 3-D printing.”
For his project, Laput worked with another HCII PhD student, Xiang (Anthony) Chen, as well as his adviser, Chris Harrison, an HCII assistant professor. The research group received support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, along with companies including Google, Yahoo!, and Qualcomm.
“Most 3-D printers print hard, rigid objects, which is limiting,” Laput said. “But we want to extend what 3-D printers can do, so we sought to investigate whether its possible to print soft textures, like hair.”
3-D printing uses a technique called additive manufacturing, a process in which a digital design dictates the synthesis of a three-dimensional object through the deposition of layers of material. Fused deposition modeling (FDM), a type of additive manufacturing technology, is a common technique in 3-D printing that was utilized in the group’s project.
After being inspired by the gossamer plastic strands that form during an operation of a hot glue gun, Laput and his group used an FDM printer to develop a way to print soft strands, fibers, and bristles. The FDM printer cost $300, which is relatively inexpensive compared to other 3-D printers.
“In FDM, molten plastic is extruded and moved around — think of icing — in a very precise manner,” Laput said. “This process is repeated layer by layer until the final object is formed.”
By simply inputting a set of parameters in the software, the group was able to integrate their technique in existing 3-D printing jobs without the need for any new hardware. As a result, strands of hair can be printed and incorporated into other 3-D printed objects.
“Users specify the region they want hair to be included in their model,” Laput said. Users can also choose many different parameters of the hair, including hair length, thickness, density, and color. Other parameters include hair distribution, which allow users to print toothbrush-like bristles, as well as hair flow, which allows the user to create a “Mohawk” in their 3-D printed object.
In designing their technique, one problem the group encountered was that the print head did not move fast enough to allow for the tapering of the strands. The researchers resolved this issue by engineering the print head and the print bed to move rapidly sideways, resulting in more hair-like strands.
Treated as if it were actual hair, the 3-D printed hair underwent cutting, blown heating, curling, and braiding. Laput and his colleagues also created an eclectic collection of objects, including a replica of Gandalf, the long-bearded wizard from The Lord of the Rings, and a model of a finger with small bushes of hair.
“Media outlets like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, who covered our project, became curious,” Laput said. “Some people seem to think we’re going to replace wigs, which we’re not!”
On November 11, the group will be presenting their project at the 28th ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST), a conference for human-computer interaction research on novel interface technology.
“Tons of ideas that you see in your phone and computers today started as research projects at UIST, so it’s a really exciting venue,” said Laput, who will also be presenting a project on new smartwatch sensing technology.
In the future, the researchers are looking to continue working on the 3-D printed hair, including exploring ways to make the hair more dense and realistic. They are also looking into using materials besides plastic, including materials with conductive properties for touch sensing.
“It’s mostly aesthetic right now, but in the future it may be possible to create functional strands and bristles, such as velcro,” said Laput.
Outside of the laboratory, the group’s 3-D printed hair has evoked responses from the scientific community, in addition to the popular press. “A lot of people were super excited since the idea has never been done before.” Laput said. “It adds a new toolbox to the types of capabilities that people have with 3-D printers.”