Disney is exploring the use of 3D printers to build new kinds of light features into objects.
The firm’s researchers are working on a range of techniques including “light pipes” and tubes of enclosed air that can be made to glow in controlled ways.
They say that 3D printers can create objects with “micron accuracy” that would otherwise be more complicated and costly to build.
It paves the way for the firm to create new kinds of toys.
However, one expert suggested it might be some time before the innovation became cheap enough to use to create mass produced items.
A paper published by the entertainment giant’s Pittsburgh labs details prototypes already created including a bug-like figure with glowing eyes that display different graphics; chess set pieces that use light to display information about their position on the board; and blocks of plastic that appear to show explosions inside when light is shone at them.
“We envision a future world where interactive devices can be printed rather than assembled,” wrote the team.
“A world where a device with active components is created as a single object, rather than a case enclosing circuit boards and individual assembled parts.”
The engineers used computer software to make objects which included innovative lighting elements. They explained that creating the toys on 3D printers allowed them to create a real-world prototype within minutes, rather than having to wait for a factory to be retooled.
The process used a liquid substance that hardened when exposed to ultraviolet light. The printer deposited and hardened this polymer layer by layer with a high degree of accuracy that equated to a print resolution of 600 dots per inch.
One application involved the creation of air pockets in the shape of thin hollow tubes of various lengths which were arranged to resemble the shape of a cartoon heart inside an animal-shaped figurine.
When illuminated from below using a light emitting-diode (LED) the tubes looked as if lots of tiny lights had been built into the toy and programmed to shine in sequence to resemble a beating heart.
Another example involved creating “light pipes” as a 3D-printed alternative to optical fibre.
The engineers said the pipes could be easily shaped to fit a toy’s specific form, with joints placed at specific places allowing them to be linked to other light pipes. They said this would have been much harder to achieve with traditional fibre.
The Disney team used a series of these pipes to funnel light up from the base of a toy demon into its eyes. Engineers could control which bits of the eyes were illuminated in a specific color, to make the toy appear as if it was rolling its eyeballs, blinking, or showing two small throbbing hearts.
The team also showed how a large number of light pipes could be used to form a kind of dot matrix display. By controlling which pipe received light at any one time they were able to make text and numbers glow through the sides of the bases of specially constructed chess pieces.
They suggested the technique could be used to show the pieces’ location and a suggested move during a game.
The researchers acknowledged they needed to do more work before the technology was ready for market. For instance the light pipes currently suffer from too much light loss unless they are kept short, and there were complications in creating completely enclosed hollow areas.
However, the researchers appeared confident that these setbacks could be overcome and added that future 3D printers should permit greater control over reflectivity, light absorption and other factors allowing toy designers to incorporate additional functionality.
But one industry watcher had doubts.
“The toy industry will always look to see if it can use technology to enhance the <<wow factor>>,” said John Baulch, editor of Toy World magazine.
“But the key thing is whether this can be used to make toys at a price that makes the end-product commercially viable.
“So far the small number of other companies that have developed 3D printing methods have found that the resulting products end up being expensive and have targeted them at adult collectors, rather than children, as a result.”
In the meantime some in the toy business see 3D printers as a potential threat, allowing users to download designs and create their own toys at home.
File-sharing site The Pirate Bay already hosts a limited number of 3D file blueprints and has claimed “physibles” would be the “next step in copying”.