Printed Optics is a new approach to creating custom optical elements for interactive devices using 3D printing. Printed Optics enable sensing, display, and illumination elements to be directly embedded in the body of an interactive device. Using these elements, unique display surfaces, novel illumination techniques, custom optical sensors, and robust embedded components can be digitally fabricated for rapid, high fidelity, customized interactive devices.

When we imagine displays, we think of computer monitors and smartphone touch screens. They’re basically TVs we stick to things. The idea works well for anything already shaped like a rectangle. But nothing curved quite works–it becomes a tacky retrofit, as seen in minivans and airline seats.

Disney Research has come up with an interesting solution called Printed Optics. It’s a threaded display (basically fiber optics) embedded within an object itself–almost like a circulatory system that moves light rather than blood. Its endpoints create a display of absolutely any shape. Whereas Teddy Ruxpin had a cassette player awkwardly shoved into his back, Disney’s tech could make his whole face into a contoured display.

The breakthrough here is that Disney is printing these fiber-optic-like tubes right inside any solid form, via 3-D printing. “No one shape is any harder to make than any other. As long as it can be 3-D printed, it can be made,” project researcher Karl Willis tells Co.Design.

As of now, the team has successfully printed light pipes as small as 250 microns, the diameter of a few human hairs. Each of these pipes theoretically serves as a pixel, revealing an image that comes from a source display embedded deep within the object. In essence, a somewhat traditional screen still exists somewhere (for example, Disney created chess pieces that glow from a display hidden within the board), but a screen’s rigid construction is no longer limiting the aesthetics of an object.

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