Syfy Labs Brings “The Expanse” to MakerBot 3D Printers at CES

Xconomy New York — 

Syfy really wants tech lovers and hobbyists to get onboard with one of its latest TV programs—and the timing might even help 3D-printer company MakerBot Industries.

Viewers of science-fiction series The Expanse can now 3D-print replica spaceships from the show through a collaboration between the Syfy cable network and Brooklyn-based MakerBot.

Introduced on Wednesday at CES in Las Vegas, the partnership is part of a promotional effort for the show, which debuted in late 2015. It is also a chance for MakerBot to try and broaden its appeal by pairing more media properties with its desktop 3D printers.

In addition to sharing designs from The Expanse online for free at MakerBot’s Thingiverse community, Syfy has also tied in virtual reality gear from Samsung and reactive smart lighting from Philips to get tech-savvy viewers more engaged with the new series.

The pairing of gadgets and entertainment came together at the Syfy Labs display in the Las Vegas Convention Center at the annual technology trade show.

Matthew Chiavelli (pictured above), senior vice president of Syfy Digital, heads up Syfy Labs, which he told me is the culmination of the network’s efforts to use technology to increase audience interest in its programs. “This is a lens we’re going to look through for everything we do digitally moving forward,” he said.

For instance, a year and a half ago Syfy added a feature to the Syfy Sync app to integrate Philips Hue smart connected lighting with some of its programs, Chiavelli said.

The app listens for audio cues from Syfy shows, he said, to provide extra information to viewers about what is on screen. Beyond that second screen function, the newer feature can remotely control Philips Hue lighting, which can be dimmed, brightened, or made to change color to create a bit of atmosphere in the home that responds to the television program. “With Sharknado 2, you were getting lightning; it was going red every time someone got killed,” Chiavelli said.

An app from SyFy works with Philips connected lighting to match the atmosphere at home with the show. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

An app from SyFy works with Philips connected lighting to match the atmosphere at home with the show. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Such lighting effects are now available for viewers of The Expanse, a gritty futuristic drama based on a series of books. “We have people in New York making custom lighting tracks,” Chiavelli said. “This isn’t done algorithmically, we’re doing it based on the content.”

Taking the immersion factor up a few notches, Syfy started dabbling with virtual reality last summer, he said, with Google Cardboard, which is literally a cardboard headset add-on that can bring some VR to smartphones. At CES, Syfy demonstrated how it would use the recently released Samsung Gear VR to let viewers explore the spaceships and universe of The Expanse using 3D imagery rendered from the show.

If watching The Expanse on TV is not enough, fans can get a virtual reality taste of the spaceships. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

If watching The Expanse on TV is not enough, fans can get a virtual reality taste of the spaceships. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

MakerBot users can go hands-on with those same spaceships if they download and replicate the designs from Thingiverse. “These are all using the actual assets from the show,” Chiavelli said, though they’re simplified a bit for desktop 3D printing.

This is not the first time MakerBot has associated itself with a media brand to chase wider appeal. At CES in 2015, the company talked up a then-recent collaboration with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. That gave MakerBot users access to designs, developed by Stewart’s company, for housewares they could produce for themselves.

The association with Syfy might be a way for MakerBot to generate more buzz about its 3D printers—especially since it is hard to ignore the changes and layoffs MakerBot went through in 2015. Last February, its parent company Stratasys reported it would take a write-down based on MakerBot’s performance in 2014.

Later in the year, Jonathan Jaglom became CEO of MakerBot, taking over from Jenny Lawton, who took on the role of executive vice president of special projects at Stratasys. The company also tightened its belt again with a couple of reported rounds of layoffs, each time estimated to cut 20 percent of the staff.

The new pairing with Syfy Labs seems like a move to mutually attract 3D-printing hobbyists looking for new designs to work with, and science fiction fans who want a little something to “Remember the Cant” as they would say in The Expanse.

Trying to generate buzz for a new show in tandem with technology that is also searching for a bigger audience is a gamble, though. A video game was produced alongside Syfy’s now-cancelled program Defiance, but they did not cross-pollinate that heavily. Then again, The Expanse was renewed for a second season just four episodes into its first run . . .

MakerBot 3D printers can reproduce ships and emblems from The Expanse. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

MakerBot 3D printers can reproduce ships and emblems from The Expanse. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)