Slice wood with laser pointer and imagination

A research project lets users create quick, custom designs with a laser cutter

Using a laser pointer as a knife, a project at the Computer Human Interaction conference lets users make custom creations out of wood and plastic without spending hours designing.

To see the laser cutter in action, watch a video on YouTube.

Called Constructables, the project from Germany's Hasso Plattner Institute uses a $79,000 industrial laser cutter. The machine is controlled by a set of laser pointers, about a dozen, each with a different function. One can draw straight lines, one rounded corners, one rectangles and so on.

To get started a user places a piece of wood inside the cutter and closes the glass lid. Using the laser pointer tool, the user draws a design onto the wood, which is picked up by a camera mounted above the machine. Computer software then snaps the lines to make them straight and tells the machine to cut into the wood.

The typical fabrication method meant that a designer would need to sit in front of a computer and fully complete the design, according to Stefanie Mueller a Ph.D. student at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany. "The idea with Constructables is to make this process more iterative."

She said that designers can make each piece step by step and see how they fit together. Mueller said one of the drawbacks of laser cutters is that they can only cut in 3D. Because of this, the final product needs to be assembled by humans and if a cut is even a millimeter off, then it might not fit. The computer software eliminates these kinds of errors.

"For example to connect two pieces you need something called finger joints and those need to be really precisely fit together," she said at the CHI conference in Paris.

While the group's laser cutter is expensive, she said they also have one from China that costs considerably less. As the prices for the fabrication machines continue to come down, she hopes that projects like hers can speed up the design process.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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