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MakerBot shows off its Digitizer 3D scanner, with the help of some corn starch

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MakerBot's Digitizer is the kind of thing that sounds too good to be true: a desktop scanner that can build perfect 360-degree recreations of almost anything that can fit on its eight-inch-wide platform. After announcing the Digitizer early this year, MakerBot is now showing it off for the first time, albeit in a carefully supervised demo. And despite some obvious limitations, it seems to stack up quite well.

The core of the Digitizer is a camera and laser system that captures hundreds of lines around an object. Once you place something on the round platform, the machine starts one of two rotations that will create a series of points around it. Each rotation — one clockwise, one counter-clockwise — is comprised of 800 tiny ticks, as the camera essentially finds the edge of the object over and over. When it's done, MakerBot's companion software will lay a mesh over the whole thing, creating a 3D object that's ready to print. The whole process takes a little over ten minutes, a period that doesn't include the much longer printing time.

Like anything, though, there are complications. Put in something smaller than two by two inches, and you'll start getting substandard results. The Digitizer's precision tops out at half a millimeter, so finer detail will get lost. The edge-finding system also has some hard limits, particularly shiny objects and black ones that will absorb the lights. But those last two things, MakerBot promises, can be circumvented with a quick real-world fix. Next to the office's Digitizer was a container of corn starch, which the team had sprinkled over a model tiger with black stripes. The starch lightens the blacks, and it can dull shine as well. Fail to put it on, and MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis says you'll get "interesting" results. Over time, you'll also apparently see the scans degrade minimally, just like a photocopied page that becomes a little bit blurrier with each iteration.

Like a photocopied page, each iteration will degrade a little

We didn't, mind you, actually get to see these limits tested. At least under ideal conditions, though, it's an impressive and even beautiful thing to see. The scanner "builds" the object right in front of you, letting you watch it grow from a couple of errant lines to a full model. The conch shell that was scanned for us maintained its smooth, rounded contours, and other models, like the gnome above, captured an impressive amount of detail. A skilled modeler could replicate the designs, but for anyone who's barely touched 3D design software, it lowers the bar dramatically.

The $1,400 Digitizer isn't the sort of thing most people will end up keeping around, no matter how cool it is. MakerBot targets dedicated tinkerers and small businesses, who can quickly copy and modify designs by scanning and printing them. The possibility of duplicating physical art creates another interesting use case — MakerBot briefly showed off a clay sculpture that had been scanned and reprinted, and the design software could let artists start with a real object, tweak its 3D model, and print a remixed version.

MakerBot has sold around 22,000 printers in the four years it's been around, but Pettis says he expects to sell "tens of thousands" of Digitizers after they go on sale next month. It's an ambitious but not unreachable goal, as 3D printers become more important to prototyping and schools and libraries start seeing them as a learning tool. For the rest of us, the Digitizer is a fascinating concept, even if we'll surely start seeing limitations once it's out of MakerBot's hands.