Additive Appearance on developing software for the new age of 3D printing

Additive appearance was launched as the latest spin-off of CUIP in October 2023, but a story of this company that will revolutionize appearance in the 3D printing industry is quite a bit older. Today’s guest on CUIP On Air is Dr. Alexander Wilkie who is a specialist for predictive rendering and colour science research at the Faculty of mathematics and physics at Charles University and a valued member of the Additive Appearance team.

When we were preparing for the podcast you’ve mentioned twice that during your work you have discovered something innovative based on someone else’s accidental error and by one of those, so to say, happy accidents you were led to the idea of Additive Appearance. So maybe if you can tell us more about the story of how it really began?

We visited a laboratory that was pioneering doing colour 3D print and at that time, our research group was into highly realistic computer graphics and that was it. Light transport, object appearance, but only in the virtual space. And we saw printouts in the laboratory and they seemed pretty blurry. The colours were fine, but the features were a bit blurry and we thought that we could simply do better than that. The irony though was that years later when we spoke to the people at that other lab and we told them we only started this because we saw their blurry prints, they said these prints were actually done with the machine in a misconfigured state and that they’re not normally that blurry, so we actually said that if we’d seen proper prints we might have not even started the whole research direction .

Can you properly introduce what Additive Appearance does?

As with any printer, the question is, how do you turn the picture you have modeled on the computer into the actual printer commands. As for 2D print, everybody knows that you can print a coloured document on your office printer – for which there are long-standing solutions but these standard 2D methods, they do work for 3D, but they just don’t give you the truly optimal result. So we focus on doing just that.

Optimazing surface appearance?

Not just the surface, but the whole appearance of the object. Because to take these machines to the full potential, you actually need to take a fairly different approach. We were doing movie graphics until then because if you want a dinosaur in a movie, you need a sophisticated software to simulate that and funnily enough, this ability to predict what a dinosaur looks like, is the exact core of our software. Being able to predict the appearance and then rearranging it through optimizer multiple times.

You have mentioned movie companies, but surely the spectrum of your potential clients is wider.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem which is fortunately now moving to the stage where there’s chickens in the yard. The technology to do full color 3D printing has existed for the better part of 10-15 years now. The polyjet technology developed by Stratasys and others, but the materials so far were quite brittle, so you could print something, but the objects would not be very durable and they would be very expensive to print. This is now changing because a company we’re collaborating with is finally making a printer that can print full colour, durable materials – one application for instance is dentures because being a cosmetic thing as well as a functional one now that they can be printed from plastic that is hard enough to actually use the dentures, you can directly print it to match the appearance of the remaining teeth of a person, so it’s cosmetic, it matches the appearance and it’s usable.

To go back where you started, you all come from The Faculty of mathematics and physics from the Charles University, is it where your team was built?

Yes, the company is founded by three of the founders who are my former PhD students and there’s myself and our specialty so far as I’ve said before, was highly realistic computer graphics, so getting appearance of virtual things right and now we’re simply taking that to the real world.

I think that we really have to mention that the work of Additive Appearance is based on research of Jaroslav Křivánek. Can you provide a little more background to that?

Yes, we used to work together at the Charles University as we had complimentary specialties. My specialty is more physics and colour and his specialty was light transport and in which he really was a Pioneer. He built another very successful startup company based on his research which is now used for architectural visualizations – making the plans into a photo-looking image. It was possible to do before his research, but he made it convenient and fast for the end users. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2019 before we could start Additive Appearance, but he was involved also in our research because one side of it is color and the physics, but the light transport computations are at the very core of this and he was the one who provided this.

Sometimes, it takes years before a spin-off company is founded and even years to come up with the original idea. How do you overcome the stage when it is not completely done yet but it is time to start the commercialization?

Maybe we are a bit conservative in that, but only once a market opportunity wasn’t just theoretical after the numbers started to basically check out in that, we agreed this could actually work and then we started to talk to CUIP which has been immensely helpful in getting this off the ground because they provided all the logistics and help with starting a company. It’s probably a bit like meeting somebody you later marry because those people who are married tell you, you’ll know once you meet that person, it’s going to be obvious. Similarly, once you have the technology and you’re in that position where you’ve been talking to customers and spend potentially years getting to know the market, getting to know the whole domain outside the lab, then you will recognize know when the time is.

You can also listen to the podcast at its full length on our Spotify.

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