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Microsoft’s Megan Saunders talks “3D for Everyone” at the company’s event in New York City Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

NEW YORK — The inspiration for Microsoft’s newest initiative to make 3D accessible for everyone didn’t come from a series of spreadsheets or proposals touting it as a good business opportunity.

In fact, the idea came from a child’s Christmas list. It all started when Megan Saunders‘ daughter Maddie asked for a 3D printer. The artistically-inclined and tech savvy youngster wanted to build and interact with all sorts of objects in 3D — toys, kitchen utensils and many other things.

Saunders, a general manager at Microsoft working on HoloLens at the time, later that night wrote a memo that would eventually lead to the development of 3D as a focal point of Microsoft’s newest Windows 10 update. The main idea is to use 3D to engage people who are more visually-oriented. For example, instead of teaching math through notes and textbooks, 3D images can help visual learners pick up concepts.

“I realized we had an opportunity to enable Maddie to be creative in different ways, and very importantly, learn in new ways, and maybe set her on a path she might not otherwise go,” Saunders told GeekWire in an interview in New York this week.

Saunders wouldn’t say how long it took to get from Maddie’s Christmas list to “3D for Everyone,” but the vision became a reality Wednesday when Microsoft debuted the Windows 10 Creators update. The update is free, and it will ship early next year.

Megan Saunders shows off the capabilities of Paint 3D at Microsoft's event in New York City Wednesday. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy.
Megan Saunders shows off the capabilities of Paint 3D at Microsoft’s event in New York City Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The long-rumored Paint 3D will be the centerpiece of Microsoft’s 3D push. The company says 100 million people use Paint every month, and Microsoft wants to use the platform to make it easier for them to create and share objects in 3D.

The new Paint lets people, capture, edit and convert images from 2D to 3D. Microsoft is also building a social network called Remix that lets people get inspiration for 3D creations and share their own work. These moves were a bit of a surprise from Microsoft, as the company is more known for creating products for enterprises. Paint 3D and other tools of the creators update traditionally tend to be more in Apple’s domain.

Today, building virtual objects in 3D can be tough, and is mostly left to professional artists and designers. One of the biggest challenges for Microsoft in trying to make 3D more widely available is to make it easier for people to build and share files.

“Simply solving the ability to take up a 3D file, send it anywhere, be able to open it and read it is something that can solve a lot of problems,” Saunders said. “It’s a very simple thing, but a pretty powerful thing.”

A lot of our current interactions with 3D — like 3D movies — can feel more novel than practical. But Saunders sees a lot of important uses in Microsoft’s new 3D packages. For example, she said, the company talked to doctors about how they take 3D scans of patients, but have to turn them into a series of 2D images because it’s difficult today to send and share 3D files.

For online retail one of the biggest problems is the inability to try on clothes or see how a furniture piece fits in a house. At Wednesday’s event Saunders demonstrated the ability to scan objects, make them 3D and using a virtual reality headset bring them into the real world.

“If I can preview things in my home I am more likely to click ‘buy’ with confidence,” Saunders said.

A demonstration of how 3D images and virtual reality can make it easier to buy furniture on line. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy.
A demonstration of how 3D images and virtual reality can make it easier to buy furniture online. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The ideas that originated with Saunders’ now 13-year-old daughter have not changed significantly since that first memo. The idea has always been to create an “ecosystem” for 3D. By doing things like making file types easier to share among people and across a variety of devices, Microsoft hopes to remove the high barrier to get into 3D. Saunders said Microsoft is in a unique position to do this because it touches everyone from the individual to the largest company.

For such a sea change, Microsoft will have to work with partners and understand how people want to use 3D. As Saunders put it, Microsoft is building these programs for the biggest Fortune 500 company CEOs, all the way down to her mom and her daughter Maddie.

“We really have to translate that value for people in their own language or in their own behaviors and activities,” Saunders said.

Microsoft presented some pretty complicated and futuristic looking stuff at Wednesday’s event: a desktop computer that is also a canvas; a dial that lets users control color and density, affordable virtual reality headsets; and programs to capture, edit and create 3D and holographic images. But Saunders says the motivation behind a lot of these programs and products is simple. They represent another way to share ideas, but with more technological capability behind them.

“What we are doing is tapping into historical human behavior patterns that we’ve just always done,” Saunders said. “We started writing on cave walls because we wanted to tell each other stories, then at some point we had pen and paper, and then we had personal computers, and this is just the next evolution of allowing us to communicate and express ourselves with other people. But it’s richer because it’s actually more realistic.”

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