Bill Henderson wants to bring things back to the real. “Everything has been pushed to the virtual world,” says the founder of Offload Studios, a B.C.-based company that specializes in turning 3-D computer models into real-life statues. “Everything is all about these temporary experiences where when you turn off your computer it’s gone.”
It was a risk, says Henderson about starting the company more than three years ago, but he was convinced there was a market for it. He believed that people wanted to hold things again—things that weren’t keyboards or tablets or smartphones, things with texture and personality. “When you’ve worked with someone who’s been a digital sculptor for their entire career and all of the sudden what they have been designing and making they’re now holding in their hands—,” Henderson pauses. “It’s quite something to see a grown man cry.”
Professional 3-D developers from all over the world have been the bread and butter of Offload Studios, but if Henderson has his way, that’s about to change. “There will be an announcement at Siggraph,” he says cryptically. Siggraph is an international convention held every year for CG pros; it’s usually in L.A., but this year in August it’ll call Vancouver its home—a convenience for Henderson. He says he can’t get into details about Offload’s big announcement, but the direction in which he’s heading is clear: the consumer market.
What he will say is that it involves a partnership with “a brand-new startup of seasoned veterans” and will have an online focus. It’ll be a browser-based experience using technology that no one’s seen before, he adds. “Everything is really geared to getting people to the point of: you designed it, now you want to buy it.”
Henderson says companies like his have failed in the past, and that he’s “one of the few people on the planet doing it.” Indeed, costs are high and the profit margins can be small. Traditional manufacturing involves making a mold and then stamping out thousands of clones, he explains, but “in our production every piece is unique,” and consequently much costlier.
Offload uses a 3-D printer, which Henderson compares to a bubble jet printer, only instead of printing on paper, it prints on plaster of Paris—“layer by layer, like a cat scan.” Smaller figurines, which usually stand around three inches, can retail for between $20 and $40, but price increases exponentially with size. A 20-inch piece they’re working on for Siggraph would probably retail somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, he says—but, boy, would it ever look impressive at reception.
And then there’s the selling power of permanence. That’s something Henderson really believes in. “The more emotion you connect to something that you do, the more you want to remember that experience.”