The humble cellphone selfie has gone three-dimensional.
At least that’s the idea behind a new retail concept at the Mall of America, where people can purchase their very own mini-me figurines using 3-D printing technology.
Outside the aptly named Me 3D store, curious shoppers stoop toward the window to gawk at statues of firemen, ice skaters and pets. The figurines are so intricate, you can read the words on a tattoo, see shadows in the washboard abs of a shirtless model or pick out details on the medals of a soldier in full military regalia.
“I’d get one,” said Lucy Zamora, 22, of Bismarck, N.D., as she paused outside the store with two friends last week. “It’s the novelty of it. I’d put it on a shelf or mantle.”
The store’s concept is the brainchild of a couple of retail novices who were more used to working with architects and engineers than shoppers.
About a year ago, Saeid Berenjian, founder and president of a computer-aided design company, CTC Inc., and his longtime sales manager, Oliver Turan, wondered whether the same technology they use to make lifelike models of buildings could also create miniature replicas of people.
“Everyone loves to do selfies these days,” said Berenjian, who started the Bloomington-based CTC in 1997. “We thought, this is essentially 3-D selfies. It’s so lifelike, it becomes frozen in time.”
CTC Inc. works on residential and commercial projects with Fortune 500 clients and small design firms, including working with Mortenson Construction to produce a 3-D model of the upper decks of the Vikings stadium.
Running a consumer-facing business has been “trial by fire,” admitted Turan, who is vice president of Me 3D Inc., and a part owner with Berenjian.
He and Berenjian have spent the past year working out the technical kinks to perfect the look of the figurines, while learning to navigate the world of retail leases and licensing arrangements.
Since opening the store on Oct. 21, the response from consumers has been swift and positive, they said. Engaged couples want their likeness atop their wedding cakes. Parents are drawn to replicas of their children atop alphabet blocks or dressed in sports uniforms.
Pets have become such a popular request that Mall of America officials now allow Me 3D’s staff to escort dogs to the store for appointment-only photo shoots.
When the halo of lights goes on in the circular photo booth, a crowd fills the mall’s massive hallway, Turan said.
“Teenagers love it, adults love it, even grandpas and grandmas think it’s cool,” said Colten Petersen, the store’s general manager. “It’s like an alternative to the family portrait to get a scan of all the people in the family, as opposed to a photo that will end up in the drawer.”
Prices range from $95 for the smallest 4-inch figurine to $645 for the 14-inch “legend.”
The cost reflects a labor-intensive process that knits together two-dimensional photographs into a 3-D model.
Eighty-nine digital cameras surround the photo subject, capturing two sets of images. The photos are downloaded at CTC headquarters, three blocks away, in a process that takes about 40 minutes. Using multiple software tools, a technician assembles the images and sends them to one of CTC’s 3-D printers, hulking machines that stand 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
Pressed out of gypsum powder, the same material used in drywall, the figurines are dusted off and baked in an oven after coming out of the printer. Like a plastic surgeon, a technician can perfect the form, retouching color or carving out details before coating the figure in a glue that sets the color and preserves the shape.
Berenjian and Turan see the Me 3D retail store as a way to extend CTC’s existing investment and expertise in desktop software and multiple 3-D printers. But their long-term vision is to get out of the front-of-store operations by franchising the retail concept while maintaining control of the 3-D printing and production process.
The business opportunities are broad, the owners believe, with the addition of a portable wand to take scans. Berenjian and Turan have spoken with the Twins, Vikings and Wild and hope to have a kiosk at the State Fair next summer.
As the holiday season warms up, the store staff passes out 500 fliers a week to “strollers” who stop by.
“Mainly we help get the ideas flowing for customers,” Petersen said. “Every day we get a new twist.”