Scientists regularly comb through 3D data, from medical images to maps of the moon, yet they are often stuck using flat computer screens that can’t fully represent 3D data sets. Now, researchers have developed a method of 3D printing that lets scientists produce stunning, high-definition 3D copies of their data.
Conventional 3D-printing converts data into a computer model made up of tiny, connected triangles. But this process can create awkward images: The fine lines of the brain’s white matter, for example, show up as bulky tubes. Conventional printing also has problems creating objects where solid parts (or data points) are separated by empty space.
The new process is far more direct. Instead of transforming into a computer model, the data set is sliced up into thousands of horizontal images, each consisting of hundreds of thousands of voxels, or 3D pixels. Each voxel is printed with droplets of colored resin hardened by ultraviolet light. Different colors can be combined to create new ones, and transparent resin is used to represent empty space. Each layer is printed, one on top of another, to gradually build up a 3D structure.
So far, the researchers have used the voxel printing process to produce high-definition models of brain scans, topographical maps, and laser-scanned statues. And although it may take some time to get there, the team sees a day when anyone will be able to print off a copy of their data at the press of a button, from archaeologists reproducing important artifacts for conservation to doctors creating models of body parts to plan surgical procedures.