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'The 3D Printer Experience' Brings Sci-Fi Technology to Chicago

RIVER NORTH — When smart phones first hit the market, the general population had a pretty steep learning curve.

Julie Friedman Steele says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak advised her on the strategy he used to make the iPhone — and before it, personal computers — more mainstream.

"How do you create mass adoption for new technology?" Friedman Steele said. The iPhone "was so different. People were like, 'I'm used to punching buttons. I'm not doing a touch screen.' Woz said that if you can have people interact with it, and not have them be afraid, and not make them feel dumb, but to embrace them into using it, then it works."

With guidance from "Woz" and partners like gadget whiz Mike Moceri and Silicon Valley darling Matt Spergel, Chicago native Friedman Steele on Monday will open The 3D Printer Experience in River North, an "experiential retail" concept that aims to teach people how to use 3D printers — and maybe sell a few, while they're at it.

 The shop at 316 N. Clark St.
The shop at 316 N. Clark St.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

The technology behind 3D printing has been around on a small, hobbyist scale for more than six years, and uses plastic tubing to create three dimensional models from digital renderings. The 3D Printer Experience uses the most ubiquitous home device, the MakerBot, plus some big guns in the back for larger-scale projects.

From its name to its layout, with educational stations that encourage guests to play with the technology, every aspect of the storefront at 316 N. Clark St. is meant to be a gentle introduction to 3D printing.

To that end, a visitor can easily spend hours inside before spending a dime. The store includes eight learning stations where visitors can explore the materials, scan a 3D image of themselves with a hacked Microsoft Kinect motion sensor, and print out a four-inch bust from that scan. Getting a stamp at each station of the "quest" earns the user an additional free $100 print.

"The end goal is to have people develop projects independently, then come work with us to print them," Moceri said, adding that creating a collaborative learning space is more important to the store's founders than making any sales.

"It's nice to interact with [concepts] on the Internet, but when you create a physical space around it ... then you're making more universal progress."

The printing system — which lays repetitive layers of melted plastic to create solids — ruffled some feathers late last year when it was used to print an operational gun, raising concerns about the legal implications of democratizing manufacturing to such a degree. But the technology is still developing, and related laws are following close behind.

(Watch the store's founders demonstrate how it works in the video above.)

The 3D Printer Experience will be the first in Chicago to make 3D printing technology available to the general public.

"Chicago is a great incubator for new ideas," Friedman Steele said. A Los Angeles resident until a recent move back to River North, she considered launching her flagship concept in New York and LA before settling on Chicago. 

The 3D Printer Experience opens Monday at 316 N. Clark St. in River North.