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Watch Elon Musk Design A Rocket Engine Like Tony Stark

According to SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, 3-D interfaces are going to revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st Century. And he's hacked one together to prove it.

3-D interfaces in Hollywood movies may look incredible, but the conventional wisdom is that they'd be absurdly impractical to use to actually get any real work done. Movies, after all, are primarily concerned with dynamic action. If Hollywood is going to be forced to show someone using a computer to advance the plot, they'd rather do it by showing some dude wearing a cybernetic gloves swooshing and spinning his way through a hovering holographic interface than some desk jockey pushing a mouse around inside CAD.

But if there's one thing Elon Musk is good at showing us, it's that the future Hollywood tantalizes us with doesn't have to be out of reach. He's done it with private commercial space flight and electric cars, and now he's doing it for 3-D interfaces, calling it the breakthrough that will revolutionize design in the 21st century. In a new video posted to SpaceX's official YouTube channel, Musk shows off a new way of designing rocket parts that's just plain Tony Stark—not that much of a leap, considering how Iron Man director Jon Favreau says Musk was the real-life inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.'s depiction of the eccentric genius billionaire. And it's all done with off-the-shelf gadgetry.

In the video, Musk shows off a new system that the designers inside SpaceX have been using to manipulate 3-D models of rocket parts using a $80 Leap Motion. Just by using their hands in mid-air, SpaceX's rocket designers can manipulate a wireframe of a rocket engine, grabbing it, rotating it, spinning it around, and even pulling it or pushing it away to zoom in or out.

"It's a fun way to interact with what is a very complex model," Musk says. "If you could just go in there and do what you need to do, just understanding the fundamentals of how the thing should work, as opposed to how to make the computer make it work, then you can achieve a lot more in a shorter period of time."

But spinning around a wireframe was just the prototype. A few weeks later, Musk and his team had evolved the system so that they could interact with a full CAD model as the engine, viewing it in 3-D either by using stereoscopic glasses or checking it out on a freestanding glass projection. SpaceX designers can even interact with rocket parts using Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

Although it does not appear as if Musk and his team can yet design an entire part from scratch using their new 3-D interface, you can actually see Musk peel back layers of a cryogenic valve housing to manipulate and modify the components and dimensions underneath. He is then able to output the modified CAD model to a 3-D metal printer that stacks up layers of fine titanium particles, then melts them to the previous layer with a laser.

SpaceX. Iron Man. Leap Motion. Oculus Rift. Rocket engines. Lasers. 3-D printing. It's like a pharmaceutical-grade cocktail of Internet buzzwords, pumped right in the Internet's carotid artery. But this isn't just viral marketing, another aspect of Musk's Tony Stark-like skillset. Musk is sincere about this.

"I believe we're on the verge of a major breakthrough in design and manufacturing. Being able to take the concept of something from your mind, translate that into a 3-D object really intuitively on a computer, then take that virtual object and make it real through 3-D printing," says Musk. "It's going to revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st century."

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  • Hugh Wyeth

    There's a couple of issues with this. 

    For the same reason touchscreen desktops will never take off, this will never be used much. Holding your hands in the air for extended periods of time is painful. You won't be able to use this thing to work for extended periods of time. 

    Secondly, everyone gets caught up in new interfaces that ditch the mouse and keyboard imagining we can easily do everything we do with a keyboard and mouse using some arm waving. There's a reason humans invented tools and that's because they're better at certain tasks than using our bare hands. The keyboard and mouse are precision tools compared to bare hands. 

    I think it would be a great way to review designs with managers and clients but can't imagine using to actually create anything. 

  • Urzaz

     Exactly. Neither he nor the LeapMotion team has changed the actual interface with the virtual object-- you still move, rotate, and scale-- they've just abstracted them into hand motions. There are a couple differences, for example, when he changes the angle of his flat palm to change the angle of the cut, but overall he's doing the same interactions anyone with a keyboard and mouse does. Until the 3D interface allows us to reach, grab, and touch it's better to stick with 2D interfaces that work.