Seven-year-old Jack Avery of Raleigh wasn’t initially impressed by the small marble track that ran nonstop, until he learned it was almost entirely built with a printer.
That printer, much like the one most people use in their homes to print letters, set down layer upon layer of plastic to make the track, a small funnel and the skeleton of a small robot, whose job it was to pick up a large marble at the end of the route and place it back at the beginning for another run. But what got him excited was learning that printer could be programmed to make Legos.
“So if I was printing, I could put that plastic in and make a Lego person?” he asked.
His mom, Nancy, had a hand on Jack’s chest as Dave West, the creator of the track, said yes. That’s when Jack’s heart sped up.
“His heart just started beating three times faster,” she said.
The laser printing was one of several hi-tech gee whiz experiences kids had at the geekSPARK venue of SPARKcon, a sprawling festival for creativity in downtown Raleigh. The four-day festival – featuring everything from improvisational comedy to a flaming metal box controlled by gas and music – is now 10 years old, and drew roughly 58,000 people before concluding Sunday.
The conversion of laser printers to make plastic objects happened more than 15 years ago, but they have yet to become as ubiquitous as the ones that only print words or pictures on paper. This is despite these printers’ surprising precision. Bill Culverhouse, another expert at 3D printing at the festival, displayed a small model of the moon that used NASA data to recreate its pocked surface.
“They say what they are waiting for is that one killer application that’s going to make everyone want one in their house,” said West, who teaches online courses in 3D printing.
Until that happens, SPARKcon is the perfect showcase. Experimentation and free expression are at the festival’s heart, and Sunday was another perfect late summer day on which to take that plunge. Chalk paintings lined Fayetteville Street, while around the corner on East Davie Street kids painted the outline of a 50-foot-long guitar.
At the intersection of Fayetteville and Davie, thin metal sheets covered two large tilted tables. They were maps of Raleigh, where hundreds of patrons wrote concise notes about a special memory on a magnetized flag that they could then use to mark the spot it happened.
“I SAVED A TURTLE HERE,” one flag read. Another placed a flag to mark where a sibling had been born.
“It’s almost hard to describe, but it’s about expressing yourself and using your imagination,” said Erin Lavin of SPARKcon. She came with her husband Matt and daughter Charlotte, who is 5. “That’s why we like it, because it covers so many different things.”