A helping hand

A new smart tool from MIT Media Lab is blurring the lines between handmade and digital technology. But that's not a bad thing.

It's often easy to tell at a glance the difference between a mass-produced object and one that has been handcrafted: the handmade item is likely to have distinctive imperfections and clear signs of the maker’s technique and style while mass-produced items lack a sense of individuality and craftedness.

But a new device developed by MIT Media Lab may soon change all that. The FreeD “smart tool” enables inexperienced users to sculpt manually while being aided by a computer that monitors their progress so that the sculpted object doesn't stray too far from the original designed form. 

The developers see the tool's benefit as improving the maker's focus, ultimately leading to enhanced quality rather than detracting from the handmade feel.

This technology allows us to use our hands with the computer helping us to be much more engaged and to create this intimate relationship between the maker, the hand and the material, says Amit Zoran, an MIT postdoctoral student involved in the FreeD development. 

How it works: The tool, which is connected to a computer with a three-dimensional rendering of the design, uses precision magnetic tracking to follow the contours of the object and guage how much material is being removed. If, for example, the computer discerns that the maker has reached a specific point on the digital model, it stops working to maintain the integrity of the form.

“With this technology our intention was not to create new, better fabrication technology that is more accurate or more efficient,” explains Zoran. “What we wanted to do was involve the [maker's] subjective intentions – the personal making process – in digital practice.”

But the tool won't result in fake-looking handmade items being produced on a mass scale. Even if various makers use the tool to create the same design, they will each use it differently. "Even if we have the same reference, each of us will have a different tool path. Each of us will have a unique narrative that leaves a unique subjective signature on the final product," he concludes.