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The Harder Side of SXSW: 3-D Printed Candy and Robot Ostriches

Though SXSW has its heart in social media and apps, the harder side of technology is here, too.

Zach Kaplan/Inventables

3-D printed candy, robot ostriches, 3-D selfies, AI toys and other gadgets and gizmos are making an appearance at Austin’s annual geek gathering at SXSW this year.

Well, the robot ostrich isn’t coming in person, but an MIT professor who’s working on the software is.

Though SXSW has its heart in social media and apps, the harder side of technology is here, too.

And unlike appmakers — who do silly things at SXSW like give out grilled cheese if you show you’ve installed their product — the hardware folks have way better swag.

Take Inventables, which launched a new Web-based tool this week called Easel that controls a milling machine, so people can engrave their own designs without knowing how to use design software. (They’ll still need a $650 or more milling machine, but there are an increasing number of places you can find them for free, like the Chicago Public Library.)

SXSW is the place to find people enthusiastic about tech, said Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan. At his company’s booth, where people could custom engrave wooden-plated bottle openers, lines stretched to an hour long, even in the rain.

“We view this as the software for everyone else,” Kaplan said. “It’s not for the engineering community, it’s not for the design community, it’s for everyone else who doesn’t have access to [Computer Numeric Control machines] and design tools.”

Other demos around town included 3-D printed sugar treats from Sugar Lab (tastes like a sugar cube, looks like a colorful geometric figurine), and a SparkFun soldering station to make things like LED brooches.

At our own Re/code SXSW party, Shapeways gave out personalized “3-D selfie” figurines of attendees, made with an Occipital scanner attached to an iPad and then printed in plastic. While I’m obviously biased, it was really cool.

And it’s not just DIY hardware in attendance. For instance, smart home outfit Nest also had a big presence, with a demo area in a prime spot near the Austin Convention Center. The Google-owned company was giving out free popsicles instead of $130 smoke detectors.

The harder side of tech is also at SXSW to make a recruiting effort.

Russ Tedrake, an MIT professor who designs software to control robots, flew in to the show to try to get coders to turn their focus to the physical world.

After years of long-term research funded by DARPA grants, and helped along by consumer electronics bringing down the price of sensors and components like cameras and GPS, the robotics industry “has come of age incredibly quickly,” Tedrake said.

For Tedrake, the timing makes it all the more urgent.

“We need the industry and really the SXSW community to pick it up, because there’s things you can do right now. There’s a huge open source movement in robotics that makes it possible to jump in and get excited. If we can start that positive feedback cycle then costs will come down.”

In a talk on Monday, Tedrake is showing a bunch of videos of crazy robotics projects, like a robot ostrich that can run 20 miles per hour on two legs while stabilizing itself.

“I don’t think the world actually needs robotic ostriches,” Tedrake said, “but you can capture people’s attention with an ostrich. And it captures exactly what we can’t do in the control space. I want a robot that can move like a ballerina, and right now we’re moving like statues.”

The robotics startup Anki makes a toy race car game that acts like a video game but actually plays out in your living room, with iPhone app controllers. Anki’s three founders appeared on three different panels at SXSW, including one that I moderated, on topics like research and AI timescales.

Why the big push? “We are trying to bridge out of being a core technology company to be mainstream,” said Anki CEO Boris Sofman.

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