Drones, 3D printing, and AR/VR: Unrealized potential, competent results, and worrisome futures

So, yeah. These technologies are cool... enough. But even though they can be incredibly useful, the breathless marketing hype and the sci-fi promise just hasn't been realized in real life. Let's discuss.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday in their full, week-long glory, many gifts will be bought for deserving (and sometimes not-so-deserving, but still beloved) folks the world over. Among the gifts bought will be drones, 3D printers, and -- somewhat less frequently -- AR and VR kits, mostly for the gamers who have everything.

Of course, gift-givers aren't the only purchasers. Geeks, makers, and early adopters will take advantage of the sales to procure the gadgets for themselves. Whatever the purchase motivation, the population of drones, 3D printers, and AR/VR rigs in consumers' hands will increase measurably in the next few weeks.

For some, these new purchases will be the beginning of something special. But for many, these classes of gadgets will join other under-realized technology, destined to gather dust for years to come.

Droning on

It seems that any offshore company with a factory and a predilection for producing electronic gadgets is producing drones these days. That's certainly pushed the entry-level price of drones down, but it's not to everyone's benefit.

Over the past few years, I've brought in five drones to test and review. Thankfully, I didn't pay for them, because of the five, only one -- the industry-leading Mavic Pro -- was worthwhile. I tried a $50 toy quadcopter, which did, in fact, fly like a toy. It had no real flying smarts and a terrible camera, and while it could get up in the air, it had absolutely no stability.

I tried a tiny, collapsible drone that is about the size of an iPhone when folded. It had a 4K camera. If all you wanted was a moderately unsteady selfie stick that you didn't have to hold onto while using, it was good enough. It couldn't hold the air, so you had to use it just a few feet away -- which meant the drone's prop noise got in the way of any clean mic recordings. 

After about 30 feet, the connection to the drone failed. I didn't lose mine, but that's probably because I didn't send it far away. Some well-known YouTubers, including superstar Casey Neistat, reported that products provided to them simply flew away, never to be seen again.

Then I brought in two considerably more expensive drones. One was about a thousand bucks, while the other was over two grand. I did manage the launch of the first one, once. But then the battery died. After five or six months of back and forth with the vendor and its PR team, we never were able to determine if it was the custom charger or the battery that was bad. In any case, like the Spruce Goose, it flew once, never to fly again.

The second, the two thousand dollar one, required an active network connection to log in and set up. No problem. But it also required a dedicated connection to the drone's own Wi-Fi hub to control the drone. Switching between these modes was problematic because once the drone converted to Wi-Fi mode after setup, it stayed that way until a factory reset. It turns out that you could activate via LTE, but in some of the locations where drone flight is permitted, there isn't much in the way of a good LTE signal.

This bad boy also came with three different controllers, including a weird Rube Goldberg contraption that needed to be connected inline to use the WiiMote-like controller. But the deal-killer was this: it was potentially deadly.

Getting it up in the air was not a problem, although it wasn't exactly steady or smooth in flight. Landing it wasn't even that bad. But getting it to power off after landing was. I twice attempted to do "the joystick maneuver" required to power down the props. Each time, the unit flipped over and began to dig into the dirt. It's a big unit with fast-spinning props, so when it went sideways, it became a torpedo without control. It would shoot in a random direction, upside down with the spinning props bouncing it up and down off the ground. Oops.

You'll notice I didn't mention the vendor of these last two drones. That was on purpose. Some of the challenges in their use might have been situational to me. But the fact is, drones are complex, difficult devices that, when used properly, are amazing.

But they're not really ready for primetime. For example, I can't fly a drone near where I live. Hobbyist drone users can now get instant FAA flight clearance from something called LAANC -- but not all airports participate. I've tried for over a year to get launch clearance from the small state-run airport near my home, but since the airport doesn't have a tower, getting clearance has proven to be impossible.

I love drones. In two very low, controlled, rooftop-level flights, I've used my Mavic to check my roof for a leak and map where to put security cameras. And, in those places where it was possible to get flight clearance, I had a blast filming the gorgeous Oregon terrain. But we constantly see reports on Facebook about kids who've lost their drones or got them stuck on one roof or another, and I'm sure we're going to read about drones hitting small planes.

Drones are tools and, as tools, they're wonderful. But they are not really toys. They're going to be subject to more rules and regulations. Even as the AI and sensor technology in drones gets better, we can count on unrealized potential, competent results, and worrisome futures for a long time to come.

3D printers

A lot has changed since I ran my first 3D print in December 2015. Like drones, 3D printers seem to be made by anyone with a factory or who can make a video for Kickstarter. Unfortunately, many of these companies haven't lasted, often leaving owners with always-connected machines that have nowhere to connect to.

See also: Everything you need to know about 3D printing and its impact on your business

3D printing is amazing and incredibly helpful for certain kinds of fabrication projects. But it's not a Star Trek replicator. This is the challenge I explain most often when folks find out about the small 3D printer farm I maintain for ZDNet's ongoing maker coverage.

3D printers are a lot of work. To create an object, you either have to download an existing object from a site like Thingiverse or use a 3D modeling tool like Fusion 360 to create your own. For me, when I'm creating a demo print, I usually turn to Thingiverse. But when I have a problem to solve, I model my own design.

3D modeling is a skill, just like any other major technical skill. It requires learning, practice, and hands-on experience. Most projects I model up are utilitarian (dust collection adapters, brackets, video camera holders, etc.). Even so, it can take a few days and tens of test prints to get the design just right, with the measurements and tolerances I need.

Next comes the printing. 3D prints fail. My experience is that, generally, the less expensive the machine and the more convoluted the design, the more prints fail. This is usually because more expensive machines perform more alignment and temperature control tests, which help the plastic stick to the bed and fuse properly. Even so, I've had failed prints on all the machines I've used. Nothing is quite so demoralizing as printing for a week and then having the print fail before it's complete.

That's not to say that all prints fail. I'd say that, for me, maybe one in 10 fails. Generally, they're the untested downloaded models that break or a design that I hadn't fully thought through. For my designs, it usually requires a few tweaks in Fusion 360, a change in orientation, and perhaps some printing temperature settings changes that are required to get a near-perfect print.

In addition to the work required in designing and printing, there's also often quite a bit of work post-processing prints. Any print that has overhangs (areas that don't touch the printer plate) will need supports to hold up the print. These supports need to be removed. Depending on how nice you want your print to be, there's often additional post-processing in the form of sanding, paint-prep, and painting.

If you're printing with an SLA printer, there's also a print wash and UV curing process required to make the SLA-printed plastic object suitable for use.

Finally, there's basic machine maintenance. This involves cleaning the print surface and the filament path, tuning the system, uploading software updates, and more. It's not much more than someone might do for a well-used sewing machine, but it is work -- and a lot more work than you see Captain Picard do with his Star Trek replicator.

3D printing is amazing and transformative, especially for designers, factories, and makers. But it's not magic. As for worrisome futures, there are a few factors to keep in mind. All 3D printers produce fumes, and it's important to use the devices in a well-ventilated area, especially if you're using an SLA printer. A second factor is the safety of the printer itself.

Many offshore printers aren't going through any safety testing. Fires have been caused by 3D printers. In many cases, the risk of fire can be mitigated by updating firmware and adding additional sensors.

Finally, capping off our worrisome section is the question of 3D printed guns. When the first 3D printed guns were publicized, it set off a firestorm of debate. But once again, 3D printing is not a Star Trek replicator and just because someone has a 3D printer and a gun-shaped STL file (the most common format used by 3D printers), that doesn't mean a firearm can be created. There's a lot more work involved, as I discussed in this analysis.

The bottom line with 3D printing is that not everyone will be able to realize their potential, they produce competent results, and there are some worries for the future.

Distorting reality with AR and VR

Done wrong, AR could result in an exceedingly dystopian future. Fortunately, the odds of this happening are very slim for quite some time.

Also: Reality shock: The #FakeWorld future of ubiquitous AR

That's because it's not just the reality distortion effect that needs to be perfected. The glasses or goggles have to fit perfectly, weigh little, and have visual resolution that's indistinguishable from the Mark I Eyeball. Battery life has to be long enough as to not be noticeable. And it has to be completely glitch-free or the sudden application of an uncanny valley will feel more like standing at the edge of an abyss.

VR aims for full immersion, often in a simulated world. It's not enough that the Wasteland in Fallout seems barren and dangerous on screen. You have to feel as if you're living in it, almost like you're on a Star Trek holodeck.

Today's VR falls short, often for the same reasons described above. Headsets require cable harnesses to connect to computers or game consoles with enough power to render live virtual worlds in 360 degrees. And, while the holodeck simulates stepping through a virtual world and interacting with it, today's VR requires cumbersome controllers and even wide-enough areas to play without crashing into the TV, couch, or credenza.

VR, more than a novelty, is merely a curiosity. Today's VR combines the stand-up gameplay pioneered by last generations' Kinect and Wii consoles with full visual immersion. There's no doubt that stand-up games are fun (I had more fun with Kinect Sports than any serious adult should be allowed to have). But does the added gear, complexity, and cost (not to mention the weight on your face) justify the added immersion?

I'm not sure. No VR game has sold like traditional Triple-A titles, but Facebook did just buy out Beat Games, the studio behind VR mega-hit (mega for VR, anyway) Beat Saber. Beat Saber has sold more than one million copies, across several platforms.

AR isn't necessarily as much fun as VR, nor will it thrill your cardiologist or personal trainer. But AR does have useful applications right now. I find that the single best example for the practical use of AR is the one I spotlighted in a white paper I wrote with CBS and TeamViewer last year.

In it, we talked about many uses of remote technology, but one was for tech support folks. The application was simple, but breathtaking all the same. Imagine if, from a thousand miles away, you're trying to explain to your dad which cables go where on the back of a router, game console, switch, or stereo. We've all been there. Explaining which jack accepts which cable is often a challenging and frustrating process.

Now, instead, imagine you tell Dad to point the camera on the back of his phone at the array of jacks. As soon as he does that, you tap your phone and draw an arrow pointing at the right jack to use next. That's it. Through his phone, he can see where to plug in the cable. And through your phone, you can direct him. That arrow is the augmented reality -- and it's a winner.

TeamViewer has this capability now, and we can expect other apps to create live connections similarly. AR here is functional, useful, non-intrusive, and simple.

Or take Amazon's newest foray into the world of Alexa. They've introduced Alexa earbuds and Alexa glasses. While Amazon hasn't augmented your visual reality, by providing you with Alexa at all times, you have immediate and powerful access to a tremendous informational resource at all times. You hear the real world, but you also hear your tunes and Alexa responding to your requests.

I'm going to wrap this up quickly because the best way I can spotlight AR and VR's worrisome future is to suggest you read my short story, Reality Shock. As for unrealized potential, neither AR nor VR has hit its stride. But there are some competent solutions, in the form of the remote support viewer I described, augmented hearing, and fun gaming.

What about you?

Even if these technologies are slightly disappointing, a bit scary, and may produce moderately mediocre results, they are also quite amazing. If there's a 3D printer, drone, or AR/VR product on your gift list this year, let us know why, who it's for, and what you expect from it in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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