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Unfold-ing The Virtual Pottery Wheel

While most people think of pottery as a messy process involving clay and muddy hands, the roots of this craft date way back to the ancient Egyptians’ mythological belief that their deity Khnum created children from clay at a potter’s wheel and placed them in their mother’s womb. This legend’s symbolism points to pottery making’s vital utilitarian role at the time of society’s birth.

Unfold, a design studio in Antwerp, Belgium founded by Claire Warnier and Dries Verbrugge, has moved analog pottery-making into the digital realm by creating a virtual pottery wheel in conjunction with Tim Knapen and the RepRap 3D printing community. The installation has given artists a chance to make their own pottery using a 3D scanner and digital design software while still incorporating the human touch—an innovative sign of modernity for this age-old artisanal practice.

Users control the virtual wire frame pot with their hands while a green laser and video camera determine the positioning of their fingers, reflecting the appropriate changes on the virtual piece, using openFrameworks and openCV to track the sculptor’s hand fluctuations in the air. The curvature is recorded and used as a cylinder deformer.

The creation is then sent to Unfold’s ceramic printer, a variation on the aforementioned open-source RepRap 3D printer, which is unique because it imitates the traditional technique used by ceramicists, whereby the pottery is built by stacking and winding coils of real clay. The pottery can then be fired as normal.

The project is a part of the interactive ceramic installation L’Artisan Electronique and was commissioned by Z33 House for Contemporary Art as part of the Design by Performance exhibition. The great triumph of this project is that it doesn’t take away from the traditional method of pottery making, preserving many of the essential techniques and practices, but giving them a fresh new spin. The makers of the installation have kept the artisanal process of working with clay intact, but have just updated and sharpened the tools of the trade… and taken away the mess! See the 3D ceramic printer in action above.

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