Dec. 3, 2010 at 7:18 PM ET
The MakerBot Thing-o-Matic 3-D printer kit is a versatile if pricey holiday present for the geek who wants to make everything. And that's probably why it was voted this year's top Science Geek Gift.
For the past few years, people have been predicting that 3-D printers could become the next big home appliance once their cost drops below $1,000. The gizmos "print" three-dimensional objects by building up layers of plastic to match a computerized design. The resulting printed products could be prototypes for commercial products, made-to-order artwork or household items, replacement parts for other devices you have at home ... even custom-made action figures for gamers and collectors.
These 3-D printers aren't just high-priced playthings: A venture known as "Made in Space" is proposing the use of 3-D printers on the International Space Station to produce the parts that astronauts might need for orbital repairs. Meanwhile, the folks behind Fre3dom are working on ways to use 3-D printers in developing countries to produce the goods needed in local villages.
MakerBot calls its offering "a little factory that sits on your desktop." Just feed in the designs for what you want to create, and let the machine make it for you from extruded plastic. This MakerBot video shows how two women turned their cute egg design into a set of salt-and-pepper shakers.
The $1,220 price tag for the Thing-O-Matic kit might be a bit steep for my gift list, but the fact that we're getting close to that $1,000 price point suggests it won't be all that long before 3-D printers hit the big time.
The Thing-O-Matic was rated as the top Science Geek Gift by 44 percent of the more than 1,800 readers who helped judge this year's Science Geek Gift competition. And for that, the person who suggested the gift, A. Ritchie, will be getting a holiday goodie bag that contains a signed copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," as well as a couple of 3-D picture books and a Hubble coffee-table volume.
We'll also throw in a couple of toy Tribbles (as a tribute to the fuzzy creatures featured in "Star Trek"), as well as a set of Buckyballs, little magnetic spheres that can be pulled and shaped in ways to gladden the heart of any geek. This YouTube video shows how the "desktoy" works. If you're inclined to order a set, enter "MSNBC" as a promo code on the Buckyballs website for a 15 percent discount (valid through Dec. 15).
For more geek gift ideas, check out the many other suggestions in our roundup for science geeks -- including the SpikerBox, the do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment that took second place in the voting. Here are still more links from our original call for Geek Gift suggestions:
Previous Science Geek Gift Guides:
More sites for science gifts:
Thanks to everyone who participated in this year's Science Geek Gift contest. Have yourselves a merry little holiday season -- and be good to the geeks in your life.