Take a look at all the Portal toys that are currently available, and you’ll realize just how much gamers like to own physical models of the digital characters that they know so well. When it comes to characters that are really physically “weird,” though, there can be a problem – goofy anatomy that works in a computer-generated world may not work in the real world. In other words, a physical model of a monster from a video game may be too top-heavy to stand up on its own, its arms may positioned in such a way that they can’t bend properly, or it may otherwise just be plain ol’ gimped. However, new software has been designed to solve those problems – it takes any three-dimensional computer character, and then uses a 3D printer to create a fully-assembled articulated figure based on it.

The software was developed by a team from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Technische Universität Berlin and Cornell University. They demonstrated it by building models of creatures from Spore, an evolution-based video game in which players create animated animals with virtually any combination of physical features.

Taking such a digital model as a starting point, the program first determines where the joints should be located, based on the way in which the creature moves in its virtual world. It then tweaks the size and locations of those joints, taking into account the laws of physics that the plastic model of the creature will have to follow in the real world.

It can create both hinged and ball-and-socket joints, and builds in a bit of friction within them, so that the models will be able to hold their poses. The software is also able to analyze the often roughly-defined virtual skin texture of a computer model, and refine it into a higher-resolution skin surface on the action figure.

Along with its possible use for the creation of toys, the researchers also believe the technology could be beneficial to animators – in the same way that traditional artists use posable wooden mannequins when drawing people, perhaps animators could gain insight from manipulating models of the characters they’re working with.

At some point, when technology allows, the software may even be able to create moving models.

“Perhaps in the future someone will invent a 3D printer that prints the body and the electronics in one piece,” suggested Moritz Bächer, lead author of a paper on the research. “Then you could create the complete animated character at the push of a button and have it run around on your desk.”

The steps of the process – as it currently stands, sans electronics – are outlined in the video below.

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