Entering A New Dimension
 The end of the year is traditionally for taking stock of the past year and speculating on the future, when there may be just a few moments reflection to look beyond the immediate demands of paying customers and consider possibilities and probabilities.In the short term, evidence is things don't change very much - whatever the latest press release from so-and-so about a "revolutionary" new product says. Your basic digital copier still works on the same principle and does the same job as ever, albeit at greater speed and with more options for the finished product. Inkjet printers, which inevitably feature large in a column about digital imagery, still work on the same principle of squirting coloured water droplets, though their speed and accuracy has improved dramatically.Although we often think we live in a world where things can change over night, it takes time for technology to be adapted to practical purpose, and accepted for use. While we now could not live without a mobile phone, it did take ten years for them to become widely acceptable, and therefore actually useful - as most people had one. Well, anyone that mattered anyway.The technological breakthrough was not just the mobile phone itself, but the satellite systems and networks that have gone on to make everything else possible that goes with it, like that great boon to navigation, the sat nav.As someone who can still actually read a map, regular readers will know I retain a healthy scepticism on certain developments. It's like the person who wants to convert all London parking meters to credit cards which you top up by using your mobile phone. Yeah, good idea standing on a London street waving your credit card and your mobile phone. Mugging has always been a popular pastime in the capital and it's good to know that old traditions are still encouraged.What makes modern technological developments exciting is that often they create unexpected opportunities in other areas, and it is that exponential growth of capabilities that pushes the boundaries of the possible. When Johannese Gutenberg invented moveable type, it was a revolutionary creation, but it couldn't be used for anything else but printing books. Nowadays one small step for mankind can result in an enormous leap in another direction.Take the technology that drives the microscopic valves of the inkjet printer - charged droplets that are sent out to create an intricate pattern, in this case an image on paper.Those clever clogs at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been developing the same principle into some interesting areas.

At the 2008 International Expo in Zaragoza, Spain, an entire building, 300 square metres, will be created by moveable walls of water droplets, which can change shape and carry images and messages. It will be in effect an enormous three dimensional inkjet printer - literally projecting an entire pavilion. The jet heads, contained in the roof can be raised or lowered, and the spray can be instructed to open doors or windows.It may not be a practical habitation - living in a perpetual waterfall, but it is fascinating adaptation of a now relatively straightforward principle.The creators make the point that previously buildings were designed in two dimensions on paper, and only converted to three with bricks and mortar at the final stage of construction. This dynamic use of fluid walls presents a building perhaps as radical as the Crystal Palace was to Victorian England.This inspiration got me thinking that the future for digital printing might be a step into the third dimension. There have been 3D scanners, for medical and scientific use, for some years, and more recently handheld devices have opened vast new opportunities which may even see their way to consumer cameras and mobile phones.Many scanners work on the principle of stitching several independent images together to make the whole, so it is not such a big step to take a complete 360 degree view. The trick is printing it.For some time it has been possible to project a 3D image on a flat computer screen for viewing, but taking it a step further into something solid is more complicated. There are now, however, machines still called printers that can perform this magic, and output a real object previously only possible using an injection mould or the services of a skilled craftsman.

The technology is still inkjet principle, but instead of water droplets, tiny polymer beads are projected into the print chamber in the form of an initially white powder. Earlier devices used laser beams to fuse the beads together, but the latest ones using a binding fluid, building up the image in layers, and adding colour as it goes.This can create a completely accurate 24 bit colour model of the original design, however complicated. It's much more environmentally friendly as the sealed activity unit can be used in an office situation and the waste powder can be recycled.If you think this sounds more like science fiction, you can watch the science fact on video. Perfect Colours have one of the machines and can demonstrate it. You can view the introduction film on their website www.perfectcolours.comThis is cutting edge technology, literally, and another area where items are being actually created, not merely copied. How much like the modern digital print outlet where more often than not we are creating originals not copying them.Is it such a big step to see a 3D printer having a place in a copy shop of the not too distant future?