All posts by TomKurke

3D Printing Talk at UNCW CIE

I was fortunate yesterday to spend some time with a great crowd at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to talk about 3D Printing — sharing the time with an awesome team of presenters from GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.  Jim Roberts, the Director of the UNCW CIE, a friend of mine since moving to North Carolina, invited me to see his impressive incubator space located at the edge of the UNC Wilmington campus – and I was glad to do so.  He has an impressive facility, and some great partner/tenant companies already working hard, I am excited to see what will be “hatched” under Jim’s leadership.  While there I also had the chance to meet with some great local entrepreneurs as well as spending some time with the Wired Wizard Robotics Team — and incredibly impressive group of young, talented, future scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.   They were planning how to integrate 3D printing into their next design, I came away again believing how much STEM and the entire “capture to make” ecosystem should be intertwined.

One of the things I talked about yesterday was the interesting correlation between the performance of the publicly traded 3D printing companies and the relative rise of “3D Printing” as opposed to the technical term of “additive manufacturing”.  The upper left inserted graph is a Google Trends chart showing those search terms over time — if you haven’t used Google Trends — this data is normalized relative to all search volume over time.   In other words, a flat line would show that as a % of overall search, that term has stayed consistent (even as volume grows).  What you can see from this graph is the explosion of the rise of “3D Printing” as opposed to small, incremental growth of “additive manufacturing.”  Compare the rise of “3D Printing” to the stock charts and you see an interesting correlation indeed.  During the rest of my time I gave some reasons for why I believed this happened — looking at the macro level trends on both “sides” of the content to make ecosystem that may have unlocked this opportunity.

3D Printing + Additive Manufacturing

For those who have interest, you can download the slides I delivered here. TMK Presentation for UNCW on 3D Printing Opportunity (1.17.14 – FOR DISTRIBUTION)

Have a great weekend!

Light Field Cameras for 3D Imaging

Thanks for reading Part I of this article published at LiDAR News.  Below I examine some of the plenoptic technology providers as well as provide some predictions about 3D imaging in 2014 and beyond.  If you have been directed here from LiDAR News certainly skip ahead to the section starting with Technology Providers below.  Happy Holidays!

Light Field Cameras for 3D Capture and Reconstruction

Plenoptic cameras, or light field cameras, use an array of individual lenses (a microlens) to capture 4D light field about a scene.   This lens arrangement means that multiple light rays can be associated to each sensor pixel and synthetic cameras (created via software) can then process that information.

Phew, that’s a mouthful, right?  It’s actually easier to visualize –

Raytrix Plenoptic Camera Example

Image from Raytrix GmbH Presentation delivered at NVIDIA GTC 2012

This light field information can be used to help solve various computer vision challenges – for example, allowing images to be refocused after they are taken, to substantially improve low light performance with an acceptable signal to noise ratio or even to create a 3D depth map of a scene.   Of course the plenoptic approach is not restricted to single images, plenoptic “video” cameras (with a corresponding increase in data captured) have been developed as well.

The underlying algorithms and concepts behind a plenoptic camera have been around for quite some time.   A great technical backgrounder on this technology can be found in Dr. Ren Ng’s 2005 Stanford publication titled Light Field Photography with a Hand-Held Plenoptic Camera.   He reviews the (then) current state of the art before proposing his solution targeted at synthetic image formation.  Dr. Ng ultimately went on to commercialize his research by founding Lytro, which I discuss later.    Another useful backgrounder is the technical presentation prepared by Raytrix (profiled below) and delivered at the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference 2012.

In late 2010 at the NVIDIA GPU Conference, Adobe demonstrated a plenoptic camera system (hardware and software) they had been working on – while dated, it is a useful video to watch as it explains both the hardware and software technologies involved with light field imaging as well as the computing horsepower required.  Finally, another interesting source of information and recent news on developments in the light field technology space can be found at the Light Field Forum.

Light field cameras have only become truly practical because of advances in lens and sensor manufacturing techniques coupled with the massive computational horsepower unlocked by GPU compute based solutions.  To me, light field cameras represent a very interesting step in the evolution of digital imaging – which until now – has really been focused on improving what had been a typical analog workflow.

Light Field Cameras and 3D Reconstructions

 Much of the recent marketing around the potential of plenoptic synthetic cameras focuses on the ability of a consumer to interact and share images in an entirely different fashion (i.e. changing the focal point of a captured scene).  While that is certainly interesting in its own right, I am personally much more excited about the potential of extracting depth map information from light field cameras, and then using that depth map to create 3D surface reconstructions.

Pelican Imaging (profiled below) recently published a paper at SIGGRAPH Asia 2013 detailing exactly that — the creation of a depth map, which was then surfaced, using their own plenoptic hardware and software solution called the PiCam.  This paper is published in full at the Pelican Imaging site, see especially pages 10-12.

There is a lot of on-going research in this space, some use traditional stereo imaging methods acting upon the data generated from the plenoptic lens array but others use entirely different technical approaches for depth map extraction.   A very interesting recent paper presented at ICCV 2013 in early December 2013 titled Depth from Combining Defocus and Correspondence Using Light Field Cameras and authored by researchers from the University of California, Berkley and Adobe proposes a novel method for extracting depth data from light field cameras by combining two methods of depth estimation.  The authors of this paper have made available their sample code and representative examples and note in the Introduction:

 The images in this paper were captured from a single passive shot of the $400 consumer Lytro camera in different scenarios, such as high ISO, outdoors and indoors. Most other methods for depth acquisition are not as versatile or too expensive and difficult for ordinary users; even the Kinect is an active sensor that does not work outdoors. Thus, we believe our paper takes a step towards democratizing creation of depth maps and 3D content for a range of real-world scenes.

Technology Providers

Let’s take a look at a non-exhaustive list of light field technology manufacturers – this is no way complete, nor does it even attempt to cover all of the handset manufacturers and others who are incorporating plenoptic technologies – nor those who are developing “proxy” solutions to replicate some of the functionalities which true plenoptic solutions offer (e.g. Nokia’s ReFocus app software).  Apple recently entered the fray of plenoptic technologies when it was reported in late November that it had been granted a range of patents (originally filed in 2011) covering a “hybrid” light field camera setup which can be switched traditional and plenoptic imaging.


Lytro (@Lytro) was founded in 2010 by Dr. Ren Ng, building on research he started at Stanford in 2004.  Lytro has raised a total of $90M with an original $50M round in mid-2011 from Andreesen Horowitz ((@a16z, @cdixon), NEA (@NEAVC), Greylock (@GreylockVC), and a new $40M round adding North Bridge Venture Partners (@North_Bridge).   In early 2012 Lytro begin shipping its consumer focused light field camera system, later in that year Dr. Ng stepped down as CEO (he remains the Chairman), with the current CEO, Jason Rosenthal, joining in March 2013.

Lytro camera inside

Inside the Lytro Camera from Lytro

I would suspect that Lytro is pivoting from focusing purely on a consumer camera to instead the development of an imaging platform and infrastructure stack (including cloud services for interaction) that it, along with third party developers, can leverage.  This may also have been the strategy all along – in many cases to market a platform you have to first demonstrate to the market how the platform can be expressed in an application.  Jason Rosenthal seems to acknowledge as much in a recent interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Gate blog in August 2013 (prior to their most recent round being publicly announced) where is quoted as saying that the long term Lytro vision is to become  “the new software and hardware stack for everything with a lens and sensor. That’s still cameras, video cameras, medical and industrial imaging, smartphones, the entire imaging ecosystem.”  Jonathan Heiliger, a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, in his quote supporting their participation in the latest $40M round supports that vision – [t]he fun you experience when using a Lytro camera comes from the ability to engage with your photos in ways you never could before.  But powering that interactivity is some great software and hardware technology that can be used for everything with a lens and a sensor.”

I am of course intrigued by the suggestion from Rosenthal that Lytro could be developing solutions useful for medical and industrial imaging.  If you are Pelican Imaging, you are of course focusing on the comments relating to “smartphones.”

Pelican Imaging

Pelican Imaging

Image from Pelican Imaging

Pelican Imaging (@pelicanimaging) was founded in 2008 and its current investors include Qualcomm (@Qualcomm), Nokia Growth Partners, Globespan Capital Partners (@Globespancap), Granite Ventures (@GraniteVentures), InterWest Partners (@InterwestVC) and IQT.  Pelican Imaging has raised more than $37M since inception and recently extended its Series C round by adding an investment (undisclosed amount) from Panasonic in August 2013.   Interesting to me is of course the large number of handset manufacturers who have participated in earlier funding rounds, as well as early investment support from In-Q-Tel (IQT), an investment arm aligned with the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Pelican Imaging has been pretty quiet from a marketing perspective until recently, but no doubt with their recent additional investment from Panasonic and other hardware manufacturers they are making a push to become the embedded plenoptic sensor platform.


Raytrix is a German developer of plenoptic cameras, and has been doing so since 2009.  They have, up until now, primarily focused on using this technology for a host of industrial imaging solutions.   They offer a range of complete plenoptic camera solutions.  A detailed presentation explaining their solutions can also be found on their site and a very interesting video demonstration of the possibilities of a plenoptic video approach for creating 3D videos can be found hosted at the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference website.  Raytrix has posted a nice example of how they created a depth map and 3D reconstruction using their camera here.   Raytrix plenotpic video cameras can be used for particle image velocimetry (PIV), a method of measuring velocity fields in fluids by tracking how particles move across time.  Raytrix has a video demonstrating these capabilities here.

The Future

For 2014, I believe we will see the following macro-level trends develop in the 3D capture space (these were originally published here).

  • Expansion of light field cameras – Continued acceleration in 3D model and scene reconstruction (both small and large scale using depth sense and time of flight cameras but with an expansion into light field cameras (i.e. like Lytro, Pelican Imaging, Raytrix, as proposed by Apple, etc).
  • Deprecation of 3D capture hardware in lieu of solutions – We will see many companies which had been focusing mostly on data capture pivot more towards a vertical applications stack, deprecating the 3D capture hardware (as it becomes more and more ubiquitous – i.e. plenoptic cameras combined with RTK GPS accurate smartphones).
  • More contraction in the field due to M&A – Continued contraction of players in the capture/modify/make ecosystem, with established players in the commercial 3D printing and scanning market moving into the consumer space (e.g. Stratasys acquiring Makerbot, getting both a 3D scanner and a huge consumer ecosystem with Thingiverse) and with both ends of the market collapsing in to offer more complete solutions from capture to print (e.g. 3D printing companies buying 3D scanner hardware and software companies, vice versa, etc.)
  • Growing open source software alternatives – Redoubled effort on community sourced 3D reconstruction libraries and application software (e.g. Point Cloud Libraries and Meshlab), with perhaps even an attempt made to commercialize these offerings (like the Red Hat model).
  • 3D Sensors everywhere – Starting in 2014, but really accelerating in the years that follow, 3D sensors everywhere (phones, augmented reality glasses, in our cars) which will constantly capture, record and report depth data – the beginnings of a crowd sourced 3D world model.

Over time, I believe that light field cameras will grow to have a significant place in the consumer acquisition of 3D scene information via mobile devices.  They have the benefit of having a relatively small form factor, are a passive imaging system, and can be used in a workflow which consumers already know and understand.   They are of course not a panacea, and ultimately currently suffer similar limitations as does photogrammetry and stereo reconstruction when targets are not used (e.g. difficulty in accurately computing depth data in scenes without a lot of texture, accuracy dependent on depth of the scene from the camera, etc.) but novel approaches to extract more information from a 4D light field hold promise for capturing more accurate 3D depth data from light field cameras.

For consumers, and consumer applications driven from mobile, I predict that light field technologies will take a significant share of sensor technologies, where accuracy is a secondary consideration (at best) and the ease of use, form factor and the “eye candy” quality of the results are most compelling.   Active imaging systems, like those which Apple acquired from PrimeSense certainly have a strong place in the consumer acquisition of 3D data, but in mobile their usefulness maybe limited by the very nature of the sensing technology (e.g. relatively large power draw and form factor, sensor confusion in the presence of multiple other active devices, etc.).


Disruptive Trends in the Content to Make Ecosystem

Back in April I prepared a presentation covering various aspects of the capture/modify/make ecosystem — covering what I thought were (and were going to be) the disruptive forces that would impact 3D scanning and 3D printing over the coming months and years.

I outlined the following disruptive trends:

  • Democratization of low cost 3D capture devices and solutions
  • Commoditization of high accuracy 3D capture devices
  • Democratization of 3D printing along with the Makers movement
  • “Gamified” content capture, creation and modification tools
  • Leveraging crowd sourced design and open source 3D content communities
  • Accelerating investment in 3D capture and creation technologies
  • New processing and interaction paradigms
  • Overarching policy issues

Disruptive Trends

I’ve posted the full presentation (minus embedded videos, sorry!) if you have interest.  Disruptive Trends in Capture to Make (4.5.13).  These trends continue to evolve and hold true – I intend to update these trends with new representative examples which have popped up in the last half of 2013.

Apple Buys Tech Behind Microsoft Kinect (PrimeSense) – 3D Scanning Impact?

[Update: Apple has confirmed the acquisition of PrimeSense for roughly $350M, when originally published the acquisition was still only rumored.]

It has been reported that Apple (@Apple) has acquired PrimeSense (@GoPrimeSense) for $345M.

I have been long on PrimeSense’s depth sensing cameras for a while – I started following them in the months leading up to the original launch of the Microsoft Kinect in the “Project Natal” days (late 2009).  Photogrammetry was always interesting to me as an approach to create 3D models – but the reconstructions tended to fail frequently (and without warning) and always required post-processing.

My interest in PrimeSense technology was primarily twofold: (1) to find a way to leverage the installed base of Microsoft Kinect devices as 3D capture devices (as well as the Xbox Live payment infrastructure) and (2) to build an inexpensive stand-alone 3D scanner based on PrimeSense technology.  I was only more interested after Microsoft published their real-time scene reconstruction research known as KinectFusion.  Hacks like the Harvard “Drill of Depth”s (a Kinect made mobile by attaching it to a battery powered drill, screen and software, circa early 2011) only further piqued my interest about the possibilities.

Drill of Depth

The writing was on the wall for PrimeSense after Microsoft decided to abandon PrimeSense technology and develop their own depth sensing devices for use with the new Xbox One.  PrimeSense had to transition from a lucrative relationship with one large customer (~30M+ units) to a developer of hardware and firmware solutions seeking broader markets.  The OpenNI initiative (an open source project to develop middleware SDK for 3D sensors which was primarily sponsored by PrimeSense) was an attempt to broaden the potential pool of third party developers who would ultimately build solutions around PrimeSense technologies.

There are many PrimeSense powered 3D scanners in the market today – it will be interesting to see whether this pool expands or contracts after the planned Apple acquisition (e.g. will the direction be inward, focusing the PrimeSense technology to be delivered directly with Apple only devices or will they continue to court third parties developers across all types of hardware and software solutions).   The new PrimeSense Capri form factor already allows for entirely new deployment paradigms for this technology, with one more generation the sensor will have shrunk so much that they can be comfortably embedded directly in phone and tablet devices (but with a trade off in data quality if the sensor shrinks too much).

Here is a quick run-down on a non-exhaustive list of PrimeSense powered 3D scanner hardware technology and vendors (note, this isn’t a profile of the universe of software companies that offer solutions around 3D model and scene reconstruction – as there are many):

Standard Microsoft Kinect – the initial movement for using the PrimeSense technology as a 3D scene reconstruction device came from hacks to the original Microsoft Kinect.  The Kinect was hacked to run independently of the Kinect, and ultimately Microsoft decided to embrace these hacks and develop a standalone Kinect SDK.

Microsoft Kinect for PC – Microsoft began selling a Kinect which would directly interface with Windows devices, it also enabled a “near” mode for the depth camera.

Asus XTION (Pro) – This is an Asus OEM of the PrimeSense technology which provides essentially the same functional specifications as delivered in the Microsoft Kinect (they use the same PrimeSense chipset and reference design).

MatterportMatterport (@Matterport) has raised $10M  since the middle of 2012 to develop a camera system, software and cloud infrastructure for scanning interior spaces.  The camera system itself is built around PrimeSense technologies (along with 2D cameras to capture higher quality images to be referenced to the 3D reconstruction created from the PrimeSense cameras).   Most interesting to me that Matterport counts Red Swan  and Felicis Ventures as investors, both which are also invested into Floored (see below).  A few days ago Forbes profiled the use of the Matterport system, the article is worth a read.

Floored – (@Floored3D), formerly known as Lofty, concentrates primarily on developing software to help visualize interior spaces and is concentrating first on the commercial real estate industry.  Floored has raised at least a little over $1M now, including common investors with Matterport.  For more on the relationship between Matterport and Floored, see this TechCrunch article.  Floored’s CEO is Dave Eisenberg, and he gave a great presentation at the TechCrunch NYC Startup Battlefield in late April 2013 explaining Floored’s value proposition.   Floored is definitely filled with brilliant minds, and obviously a whole lot of computer vision folks who understand how difficult it is to attempt to automatically generate 3D models of interior spaces from scan data (of any quality).  To get a sense of what they are currently thinking about, check out the Floored blog.

Lynx A – This was an offering from a start-up in Austin, Texas known as Lynx Labs (@LynxLabsATX) who launched an early 2013 KickStarter campaign for an “all in one” point and shoot 3D camera.  This device was a sensor, combined with a computing device and software which would allow for the real time capturing and rendering of 3D scenes.  The first round of devices shipped in the middle of September 2013.   I do not know for sure, but my assumption is that this device is PrimeSense powered.

DotProduct (@DotProduct3D) with their DPI-7 scanner.   As with the Lynx A camera, this is a PrimeSense powered device, combined with a Google Nexus, and their scene reconstruction software called Phi.3D.  DotProduct claims 2-4mm accuracy at 1m, achieved through a combination of individual sensor calibration, their software, and rejecting sensors which do not achieve spec.  DotProduct announced in late October 2013, at the Intel Capital Global Summit, that Intel Capital (@IntelCapital) had made a seed investment into DotProduct, spearheaded by Intel’s Perceptual Computing Group.

Occipital Structure SensorOccipital (@occipital) is an extremely interesting company based in Boulder and San Francisco, filled with amazing computer vision expertise.  After cutting their teeth on some computer vision applications for generating panoramas on Apple devices, they have bridged into a complete hardware and software stack for 3D data capture and model creation.  Occipital counts the Foundry Group (@foundrygroup) as one of its investors (having invested roughly $7M into Occipital in late 2011).   Occipital completed a very successful KickStarter campaign for its Structure Sensor raising nearly $1.3M.

Occipital Structure Sensor

The Structure Sensor is a PrimeSense powered device which is officially supported on later generation Apple iPad devices.  What is compelling is Occipital’s approach to create an entire developer ecosystem around this device – no doubt building on the Skanect (@Skanect) technology they acquired from ManCTL in June of 2013.  Skanect was one of the best third party applications available which had implemented and made available the Microsoft Fusion technology (allowing for real time 3D scene reconstruction from depth cameras).   If it is true, and Apple in fact does buy PrimeSense, then that is potentially problematic for Occipital’s current development direction if Apple has aspirations for embedding this technology in mobile devices (as opposed to Apple TV).  Even if Apple did want to embed in their iDevices, it would seem then that Occipital becomes an immediately interesting acquisition target (in one swoop you get hardware, and most importantly the computer vision software expertise).  Given the depth of talent at Occipital, I’m sure things are going to work out just fine.

Sense™ 3D Scanner by 3D Systems – This is the newest 3D scanner entrant in this space (announced a few weeks ago) delivered by 3D Systems (@3dsystemscorp), which acquired my former company, Geomagic.  The Sense uses the new PrimeSense Carmine sensor – a further evolution of the PrimeSense depth camera technology, allowing for greater depth accuracy across more pixels in the field (and ultimately reconstruction quality).  PrimeSense has a case study on the Sense.

What Are Competitive/Replacement Technologies for PrimeSense Depth Sensors?

In my opinion, the closest competitor in the market today to PrimeSense technologies are made by a company called SoftKinetic (@softkinetic) with their line of DepthSense cameras, sensors, middleware and software.


On paper, the functional specifications of these devices stack up well against the PrimeSense reference designs.  Unlike PrimeSense, SoftKinetic sells complete cameras, as well as modules and associated software and middleware.  SoftKinetic uses a time of flight (ToF) approach to capture depth data (which is different than PrimeSense).  Softkinetic has provided software middleware to Sony for the PS4 providing a middleware layer for third party developers to create gesture tracking applications using the PlayStation(R)Camera for PS4.   Softkinetic announced a similar middleware deal with Intel to accelerate perceptual computing in the early summer of 2013 too.

There are other companies in the industrial imaging space (who presently develop machine vision cameras or other time of flight scanners) which could provide consumer devices if they chose to (e.g. such as PMD Technologies in Germany).

I believe the true replacement technology, at least in the consumer space, for 3D data acquisition and reconstruction will come from light field cameras as a class in order to provide range data (e.g. z depth), and not necessarily from active imaging solutions.  See my thoughts on this below.

Predictions for 2014 and Beyond

Early in 2013, when I was asked by my friends at Develop3D to predict what 2013 would bring, I said:

In 2013 we will move through the tipping point of the create/modify/make ecosystem.

Low cost 3D content acquisition, combined with simple, powerful tools will create the 3D content pipeline required for more mainstream 3D printing adoption.  

Sensors, like the Microsoft Kinect, the LeapMotion device, and [Geomagic, now 3D Systems’] Sensable haptic devices, will unlock new interaction paradigms with reality, once digitized.  

Despite the innovation, intellectual property concerns will abound, as we are at the dawn of the next ‘Napster’ era, this one for 3D content.

I believe much of that prediction has come/is coming true.

For 2014 I believe we will see the following macro-level trends in the 3D capture space:

  • Expansion of light field cameras – Continued acceleration in 3D model and scene reconstruction (both small and large scale using depth sense and time of flight cameras but with an expansion into light field cameras (i.e. like Lytro (@Lytro) and Pelican Imaging (@pelicanimaging)).
  • Deprecation of 3D capture hardware in lieu of solutions – We will see many companies which had been focusing mostly on data capture pivot more towards a vertical applications stack, deprecating the 3D capture hardware (as it becomes more and more ubiquitous).
  • More contraction in the field due to M&A – Continued contraction of players in the capture/modify/make ecosystem, with established players in the commercial 3D printing and scanning market moving into the consumer space (e.g. Stratasys acquiring Makerbot, getting both a 3D scanner and a huge consumer ecosystem with Thingiverse) and with both ends of the market collapsing in to offer more complete solutions from capture to print (e.g. 3D printing companies buying 3D scanner hardware and software companies, vice versa, etc.)
  • Growing open source alternatives – Redoubled effort on community sourced 3D reconstruction libraries and application software (e.g. Point Cloud Libraries and Meshlab), with perhaps even an attempt made to commercialize these offerings (like the Red Hat model).
  • 3D Sensors everywhere – Starting in 2014, but really accelerating in the years that follow, 3D sensors everywhere (phones, augmented reality glasses, in our cars) which will constantly capture, record and report depth data – the beginnings of a crowd sourced 3D world model.

The Use of Light Field Cameras and 3D Data Acquisition and Reconstruction Will Explode

While the use of light field cameras to create 3D reconstructions are just at their infancy, just like the PrimeSense technology (which was designed to be used for an interaction paradigm, not for capturing depth data), I can see (no pun intended) this one coming.  Light field cameras have a strong benefit of being a passive approach to 3D data acquisition (like photogrammetry).  For what is possible in depth map creation from these types of camera systems, check out this marketing video from Pelican Imaging (note the 3D Systems Cube 3D printer)] and a more technical one here .

Pelican Imaging Sensor

Image from Pelican Imaging.

I will have a separate post looking in more depth at light field cameras as a class including Lytro’s recent new $40M round of funding and the addition of North Bridge.  I believe, after refinement, that they ultimately become a strong solution for consumer mobile devices for 3D content capture because of their size, power needs, passive approach, etc.  In the interim, if you have interest in this space you should read the Pelican Imaging presentation recently made at SIGGRAPH Asia on the PiCam and reproduced in full at the Pelican Imaging site.  Fast forward to pages 10-12 in this technical presentation for an example of using the Pelican Imaging camera to produce a depth map which is then surfaced.

What could ultimately game changing is if we find updated and refined depth sense technology embedded and delivered directly with the next series of smartphones and augmented reality devices (e.g. Google Glass).  In that world, everyone has a 3D depth sensor, everyone is capturing data, and the potentials are limitless for applications which can harvest and act upon that data once captured.

Let the era of crowd sourced world 3D data capture begin!

(. . . but wait, who owns that 3D world database once created. . .

This article was original published on DEVELOP3D on November 18th, 2013, it has been modified since that original posting.

littleBits Raises An Additional $11.1M in Series B Funding

littleBits, the New York City based open hardware startup, has raised a $11.M Series B round of funding led by True Ventures (@trueventures) and Foundry Group (@foundrygroup) and includes new investors Two Sigma Ventures (who had also just led an $11.5M investment in Rethink Robotics, and is invested into Floored (@Floored), who I have blogged about before) and Vegas Tech Fund (@VegasTechFund).   Returning investors Khosla Ventures (@vkhosla), Mena Ventures, Neoteny Labs, O’Reilly AlphaTech (@OATV), Lerer Ventures (also invested into Floored) (@lererventures) and new and returning angel investors also participated.  littleBits had previously raised $3.65M in Series A funding, and $850K in seed funding, bringing its total raised to date to over $15M.

littleBits mission is to “turn everyone into an inventor by making electronics accessible as a material.” littleBits makes “Bits modules” that snap together magnetically to make it easy for children and adults to build simple circuits and inventive projects in seconds. littleBits, and its CEO Ayah Bdeir (@ayahbdeir) have won numerous awards and are viewed as leaders in the maker movement.

I previously profiled littleBits in my two part blog series in November and December 2012 looking examining the intersection of the makers movement with the “Minecraft generation” in my own house – as I try to get my own kids to focus more on the worlds of atoms instead of bits.  You can find those two posts here: (1)  and (2)

Congratulations to littleBits!

The call for a harmonized “Community License” for 3D Content – Part I.

Ponoko, Cubify, 3DWarehouse, oh my!

Let’s start first by reviewing one of the older services available to host 3D content and see how they address the issue. I am assuming for purposes of this review that all of the terms of service are in fact enforceable (which might be a big assumption!).

Google 3D Warehouse

Google has been publicly hosting and re-distributing 3D content (primarily in their .SKP file format) for a long time by Internet standards, since at least 2006.   Have you ever thought to read the Google terms applicable to the 3DWarehouse service?  If not, you can find them at:

Under Section 5.7.3, you agree not to upload any content which violates the IP of a third party.  That part is not necessarily surprising.  Google wants you (as the user) to be responsible for the content you post.

What might be surprising is that if you do decide to upload content to the service that under Section 11.1(b) you grant Google “the perpetual, sublicensable, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any [c]ontent or derivative works thereof which you submit, post or display on or through, the [s]ervices.”  This license grant is of the typical type associated with works protected by copyright (but not necessarily other IP types). By virtue of Section 11.2, you grant Google the right to extend this right to other companies or organizations which use the services, and under Section 11.1(c), you grant these rights to other users of the services.   Under Section 11.6 you warrant that you have the right to grant the licenses in this section.

While you are not restricted from providing the content you upload to the service to others under different terms (see Section 11.3(a)) even if you remove the content from the service and terminate your relationship with Google, the license granted in Section 11 continues.

OK, as a practical matter, what does this mean?

It means that once you upload content, you have granted virtually an unlimited right for Google, and third parties, to distribute your work, as well as to create derivative works, without any clear attribution rights back to you.  Google does not provide a selective licensing mechanism to allow people who upload content to pick how much (or how little) of their rights they want to grant or extend to downstream users.  If it turns out that you uploaded something that you didn’t own the rights to, by operation of Section 5.7.3 and 11.6 you could be found to be in breach of contract with Google (as well as subject to an independent infringement action from the actual rights holder).


Ponoko has clearly thought through the implications of IP on the capture or create/modify/make ecosystem.  They walk contributors through a list of Creative Commons license types (for an example see here depending on how the user chooses to sell products or product plans.  The Ponoko terms of use can be found here – and a statement on intellectual property here

Unlike the Google approach, Ponoko makes it clear that they do not obtain any underlying rights to objects which are uploaded to their service other than a right to display them to market the objects for sale.  Even this right expires six (6) months after the item has first been uploaded.


Thingiverse  is the community hosting site for 3D printable content run by Makerbot Industries.  The terms of service can be found here –   Thingiverse follows the same general scheme as Ponoko.  In addition to the limited right granted to Thingiverse necessary to incorporate contributed content into the site and services (found in Section 3.2), the contributor is asked to select which Creative Commons license type they want to share their content under, see Section 3.3.  Thingiverse’s DMCA take-down notice can be found here –


GrabCAD bills itself as a community site offering 3D models for mechanical engineers (and roughly 29K models in early March 2012).  GrabCAD’s terms of service can be found here:

GrabCAD generally follows the Google model, and places the burden on IP clearance issues and concerns with the content contributor, see Section 2 “Responsibility of Contributors.”  GrabCAD does include a DMCA notice as well at Section 7.


Shapeways provides a shop to print existing uploaded 3D content, a pathway for “advanced” users to upload their own models for production, as well as a pathway for “Easy Creators” which allows for the simplified personalization of stock content (suck as cuff links, customized sake set, etc.), see:

Shapeways’ terms and conditions, last updated in February 2012, can be found here –  See the subsections titled “user generated content” and “intellectual property rights in the 3D design”.  Except for 3D Designs, if you upload content to the Shapeways site you grant Shapeways a royalty-free right to use, including create derivative works, based on the uploaded content.  By uploading it, the contributor represents that the content does not infringe any other IP rights. This is consistent with the Google approach.

With respect to uploaded 3D designs, the contributor grants Shapeways the limited right to use the design to manufacture the model to fulfill legitimate orders as well as to display it on the website.  It is possible to change the rights allocation so that the model is only displayed on the website (but cannot be produced).  Shapeways approach to uploaded 3D designs is similar to that of Ponoko.

Cubify (from 3D Systems)

Cubify is in the process of launching – they don’t expect to launch until later in 2012.  Their current terms of service can be found and

Cubify will allow for the download of hosted models under several license types, see Section 5 of the Terms of Service, specifically Sections 5(d), (e), and (f).  These are a “standard royalty free license”, and “editorial license only” and “royalty free license with model release.”  To be able to become a contributor, a user must become a “Cubify Artist”, see:

iMaterialize (from Materialise) 

iMaterialize is the service run by Materialise with the primary focus of providing a location for designers (mostly well known, rather than community developed) to host unique, 3D printable objects.  The models themselves are not downloadable so that derivative works can be made from them.  The FAQ is here: the legal terms are found here:  Whether this site develops over time to be more like Ponoko or Thingiverse remains to be seen.

The FAQ, in refreshing non-legalese, states that: “The person who placed the initial order is considered the owner of the model and has the IP rights for that model. By accepting the vendor terms and conditions, you give i.materialise the right to produce copies of the model in return for a designer’s fee. Normally, the owner is also the designer. That is why we call it a designer’s fee. If you didn’t design the model yourself, but want a special designer’s page for the person who did, please contact us for permission to set up a designer page for this designer.”

The iMaterialize website has a very clean UI in order for a designer to set-up a virtual shop, see:

Summary of Approaches

Service License Type Other notable
Google 3Dwarehouse Unique Might be surprising to learn that once uploaded you grant Google a right to share and even commercialize with others.
Ponoko CCL Elegant drop down license “picker” as part of upload process.
Cubify Unique New site and service, full terms likely under development.  Unclear why 3D Systems did not gravitate towards the CCL scheme rather than developing their own nomenclature.
Shapeways Unique Shapeways, in its terms and conditions, makes explicit distinctions between user uploaded content which is a 3D model versus that which is not.
GrabCAD Unique Contributed content is intended for “non-commercial” use unless otherwise specified by the contributor.  Unclear specifically then what an engineer who downloads content is allowed to do with it.   See Section 4.
Thingiverse CCL Thingiverse expressly states that they will share the CCL selected by the contributor with other sites, but that they are not responsible of that secondary site or service fails to adhere to those terms, see the last sentence of Section 3.2
iMaterialise Unique Not a hosting and community site per se.  Intended to provide a commercialization avenue for unique creations from designers.  Very interesting material selector pages –  Geared towards creating a physical model, not facilitating the sharing and modification of models for downstream uses.

Various Approaches and Interests

As you can see from our view from the trenches, vendors are approaching IP concerns in the create-capture/modify/make ecosystem differently.

This is an area that the folks at Creative Commons are clearly watching (the folks behind the CCL), see the post titled “CC and 3D Printing Community.”

The challenge with the current CC licensing schemes is that they were never intended to cover functional content (that which might be covered by IP rights other than copyright).    As the blog above notes –

With the exception of CC0, the Creative Commons licenses are only for granting permissions to use non-software works. The worlds of software and engineering have additional concerns outside of the scope of what is addressed by the CC licenses. 3D printing is a new medium which encompasses both the creative domains of culture and engineering, and often 3D printed works do not fall neatly into either category.

So what does this mean?  Well, basically, that despite best intentions, services that have tried to create a structured approach to IP issues in the 3D printing community by relying on the CCL scheme have done so prematurely.  Creative Commons does not apparently believe that the CCL scheme, as currently drafted, “works” here.  Uh oh and oh no.

What is Needed?

An integrated, harmonized approach to dealing with all IP considerations in the create-capture/modify/make ecosystem is required.

This is a topic which is already being actively examined for remedy in the CCL 4.0 release cycle.  Far beyond me (as there are domain and policy experts considering the interplay of these various schemes) to make a specific, actionable, proposal – other than to highlight that one is in fact desperately needed.  One that the current stakeholders can work together to formulate and adopt from a policy perspective – and then implement as close to uniformly as possible in their offerings.

The answer may come in the form of a new CCL type (but as the above discussion highlights, there are some distinct incompatibilities between the CCL scheme entirely and combined functional and creative works).  The answer may also come in the form of a new rights scheme applicable broadly to this type of content.   What should not acceptable to anyone is where we currently are – a distinct, explicit shade of grey.

This blog was originally published on March 22nd, 2012.

FAA Publishes UAS Roadmap and Comprehensive Plan

The FAA announced today  the availability of the FAA’s first annual roadmap for the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS), as well as the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO)’s comprehensive plan, the purpose of which is to safely accelerate the integration of civil UAS into the national airspace system – it is a multi-agency approach to USA integration and coordination with the shift to satellite-based technologies and new procedures.   If you are interested in UAS developments in the US, these are both well worth reading.

I am digesting these documents now.  I will provide some thoughts on them over the coming days.  Exciting times for the UAS industry in the US indeed!


CrunchBase: Using Crowdsourced Data for Commercial Purposes

For those of you who don’t know about CrunchBase (@crunchbase), it is a crowdsourced database of information about startups, people and investors.  Crunchbase describes themselves as “the free database of technology companies, people, and investors that anyone can edit. Our mission is to make information about the startup world available to everyone and maintainable by anyone.”  AOL acquired Crunchbase and TechCrunch in 2010 from Michael Arrington.

Crunchbase has been very successful in sourcing data, and have established strong relationships with many of the leading venture capital firms who regularly share data about their portfolio companies (fundraising, people, etc.).  CrunchBase has even developed an Excel Data Exporter, in addition to its API access, to allow for the broader distribution of the information contained in its databases.

The current Crunchbase Terms of Service, Privacy Policy,and Licensing Policy govern the use and access of Crunchbase data.

As of the date of this blog, the Licensing Policy provides that:

We permit anyone to republish our content in accordance with this licensing policy.

We provide CrunchBase’s content under the Creative Commons Attribution License [CC-BY]. Our content includes structured data, overviews and media files associated with companies and people. Our schema, and documentation are also offered under the Creative Commons license.

We ask that API users link back to CrunchBase from any pages that use CrunchBase data. We want to make sure that everyone is able to find the source of the content to keep the service up-to-date and accurate.

This Licensing Policy may be updated from time to time as our services change and grow. If you have any questions about this policy please contact us at

CrunchBase provides a specific licensing contract for services that charge for the use of their data. Contact

The CrunchBase Terms of Service provide further restrictions on how the API maybe used:

We provide access to portions of the Site and Service through an API thereby enabling people to build applications on top of the CrunchBase platform. For purposes of this Terms of Service, any use of the API constitutes use of the Site and Service. You agree only to use the API as outlined in the documentation provided by us on the Site.

 On any Web page or Application where you display CrunchBase company or people results, each page must include a hypertext link to the appropriate company or person profile Web page on Additional CrunchBase Branding Requirements can be found on the following Web page: CrunchBase may grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Contact us for special branding requests, which must be approved in advance in writing.

CrunchBase will utilize commercially reasonable efforts to provide the CrunchBase API on a 24/7 basis but it shall not be responsible for any disruption, regardless of length. Furthermore, CrunchBase shall not be liable for losses or damages you may incur due to any errors or omissions in any CrunchBase Content, or due to your inability to access data due to disruption of the CrunchBase API.

CrunchBase reserves the right to continually review and evaluate all uses of the API, including those that appear more competitive than complementary in nature.

CrunchBase provides a specific licensing contract for services that charge for the use of their data. Contact

CrunchBase reserves the right in its sole discretion (for any reason or for no reason) and at anytime without notice to You to change, suspend or discontinue the CrunchBase API and/or suspend or terminate your rights under these General Terms of Service to access, use and/or display the CrunchBase API, Brand Features and any CrunchBase content.

I previously reviewed various licensing schemes, including the Creative Commons scheme, in a two part earlier blog series The Call for a Harmonized Community License for 3D Content where I proposed a harmonized “community” type license for content which could be produced on 3D printers (arguing that the existing license types do not “fit” for content which can mix copyright, patent, trade dress and other rights)

For those of you who are not aware, the CC-BY license type is a very broad license grant – providing for the “maximum dissimentation of licensed materials”.  You can find the existing CC license types here and specifically the summary of CC-BY license.

Crunchbase was careful to make clear that uploaded material which they link or provide along with the company information might be licensed differently (e.g. not under the CC-BY license) and specifically made clear that:

The graphical layout of the CrunchBase website and other elements of the Site, Content or Service not described above are the copyright of CrunchBase, and may not be reproduced without permission.


Enter Pro Populi and People+

Pro Populi, a small three person startup, has been developing applications utilizing the CrunchBase dataset, one app called People+.  Pro Populi has apparently been accessing the CrunchBase data (originally via the API, but also through other means apparently) to populate their own database of content and then accessing that content (and other content) from their applications.

Wired (@Wired) reporter David Kravets (@dmkravets) broke the story on November 5th in a story titled AOL Smacks Startup for Using CrunchBase Content It Gave Away.  If you click through the link to the original Wired article, you can review some of the correspondence gathered by David Kravets in support of the story.

Pro Populi was served with a cease and desist letter from AOL (the parent company of CrunchBase).  Quoting from the Wired article, an AOL Assistant General Counsel apparently sent the following in an email to the Pro Populi CEO after a meeting with the President of CrunchBase last Friday:

On the chance that you may have misinterpreted Matt’s willingness to discuss the matter with you last week, and our reference to this as a ‘request,’ let me make clear, in more formal language, that we demand that People+ immediately cease and desist from its current violation and infringement of AOL’s/TechCrunch’s proprietary rights and other rights to CrunchBase, by removing the CrunchBase content from your People+ product and by ceasing any other use of CrunchBase-provided content.

But if CrunchBase didn’t want to allow others to use the data, why does it license its content under the CC-SA scheme?

Hopefully CrunchBase and Pro Populi can come to an agreement which works for both of them and their interests.

While CrunchBase can likely legitimately claim to restrict access to their content via their API (licensed separately, not covered by the CC-SA scheme, and with separate terms), once content covered by the CC-SA license has been accessed and copied in a manner consistent with CC-SA, can CrunchBase assert rights to “get it back?”  That seems to be an incredibly difficult road to hoe, and inconsistent with the very broad terms of the CC-SA license grant.  Worse yet, according to the Wired article, the General Counsel of the Creative Commons Corporation doesn’t think so.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation represents Pro Populi.


CrunchBase could have stayed within the CC license scheme and chosen a different CC license type for the underlying data – including one which specifically prohibits the use of the content for commercial purposes, which prohibits the creation of derivative works, and which requires specific attribution to them.  That license type is CC BY-NC-ND.  On a case by case basis they could have authorized/waived the restrictions contained in the license.  CrunchBase could have also changed the license grant for content accessed via the API.   This is solvable.

For an interesting view of this dispute from TechCrunch (a sister company to CrunchBase), see their take on the dispute.


Impact On Other “Hybrid” Commercial Use of Crowdsourced Data?

While CrunchBase and Pro Populi resolve their dispute, I am most interested in thinking about how this potentially impacts other crowdsourced data platforms and the applications built on top of them.   It is an interesting dilemma and question – how can/should crowdsourced data platforms be able to commercially benefit from their efforts – including restricting other potential competitors from a copying of data for their own purposes – commercial or otherwise?  Sourcing, filtering, vetting, editing, organizing, etc. hundreds, thousands and millions of data points is a complex undertaking.  It takes time, effort, people and ultimately money.  Unless that vetting is also done from a crowdsourced perspective (or mostly so – like the Wikipedia model), allowing potential competitors (commercial or otherwise) to copy that structured content is a potential death knell.  In that instance, openness needs to be balanced against a commercial purpose.

CrunchBase President Matt Kaufmann blogged about the CrunchBase dispute with Pro Populi and the EFF.   He essentially acknowledges the challenge of openness in the context of trying to build a commercial business – but re-affirms his belief that CrunchBase thought they restricted the use of their data (via the API or otherwise) for commercial purposes under their current licensing terms.

[T]o invest in CrunchBase’s constant improvement requires building a business around CrunchBase in a way that successfully takes into account our terms of service and our openness. We are confident that this is possible, and that’s what we are on the path to figuring out.

This is of course the challenge – adding enough value in the stack above the “open” content that can be commercialized.   As an example, take a look at MapBox – MapBox is a cloud-based platform which allows for developers to embed geo rich content into their web and mobile offerings.  They recently took $10M from Foundry Group, and I blogged about that investment – MapBox, Geo Software Platform, Maps $10M from Foundry Group.

MapBox relies on data sourced from OpenStreetMap, the “free wiki world map.”    OpenStreetMap licenses its content in two ways – the underlying data is licensed as open data under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL) while the cartography and documentation are licensed under the CC BY-SA license, the same license selected by CrunchBase).  BTW, Kevin Scofield likes the MapBox interface too.

It would be a difficult commercial business model indeed for MapBox to go through the effort of building an infrastructure to help source, collect and organize all kinds of mapping data, which was open for other uses, as well as building an application layer on top of it.   MapBox instead focuses on creating a great platform layer on top of the otherwise “open” content (others are free to do so as well).  This model works because there is enough community interest to support an undertaking like OpenStreetMap to begin with.  Can the same be said for the data underlying CrunchBase?