3D Systems' Sense scanner is compact, $400 and ready to transform 3D printing as we know it

"Game changer" isn't a term that ought be thrown around loosely. It's the kind of thing that loses value each time it's uttered -- sort of how everyone's a "genius" of some kind or other these days. Every so often, though, we get to spend some time with a product that seems to wear the moniker well. We're going to hold off here, of course -- wait until we've spent some more time 3D Systems' Sense scanner and more or less dance around the phrase in the meantime. But man, we've been pretty ecstatic about the Sense since we saw it in action a day or two ago. You see, ever since desktop 3D printers became a realistic possibility for consumers, we've been waiting for a missing link -- something that would fill in the gap between concept and creation, without the formal training required to learn CAD. It's clear, of course, that a solution is on its way, given the massive sums of money currently being pumped into the space. After all, whoever becomes the first to unlock such a thing would have a considerable advantage among the dozens of companies vying for the top prize.

MakerBot swung for the fences with the Digitizer, an attempt to do for 3D scanning what its Replicator line has done for 3D printing. And indeed, we were largely impressed with the product during our hands-on earlier this week. The $1,400 lazy Susan-esque device will no doubt find success among the maker community the company has successfully courted. Common wisdom, after all, is that 3D printing and its ilk are seeding the enthusiast community first, with casual users somewhere on the distant horizon. Surely such cost and size limitations will ensure they remain the realm of enthusiasts through the first few iterations. With the Sense, measuring roughly the same as a staple gun and boasting a price falling somewhere around that of a premium tablet, 3D Systems looks positioned to leapfrog such expectations.

The scanner's clearly taken some inspiration from industrial devices that have you essentially "paint" an object in order to scan it, a flexible approach that makes it possible to scan objects up to 10 x 10 feet -- a fair bit larger than the scan bed limitations of MakerBot's device. There are some portability issues here -- namely, the scanner is tethered (the dream of full battery-powered portability will have to wait for the second generation, we suspect). That said, the device can be plugged into a Windows device, which you can take around with you (a fact that gave the Microsoft Surface some nice face time in the press release issued earlier today), while the included software gives you a visualization of the object as you scan.

The software, of course, is the other big component, and the company has clearly gone out of its way to make things as user-friendly as possible. It kicks things off by asking you whether you'll be scanning a small, medium or large object. You hit start and then you begin scanning. I scanned a 3D Systems' employee's head during my hands-on with the product, a process that's a fair bit like taking a panorama shot with your handset. The software lets you know periodically whether you're too far or too close, and it also does a great job distinguishing an object from the background. It was a brief demo, granted, but man was it easy.

3D Systems' Sense scanner is compact, $400 and ready to transform 3D printing as we know it

3D Systems made it clear that they're really positioning this as a mainstream product, hence the rush to get things out in time for the holidays -- and the $400 price point. What's also impressive is how intelligent the software appears to be at a cursory glance; it fills in gaps that we didn't manage to hit with the scanning paintbrush. Once scanned, objects can be saved as STL files or exported to the company's 3D-printing software or Sculpt, which makes for easy mashups, so you can finally put your face on (an extremely small) Mount Rushmore. The whole process happens in a matter of minutes -- the time it takes to actually print out the objects, on the other hand, is a different story.

3D Systems' Sense scanner is compact, $400 and ready to transform 3D printing as we know it

It's all really quite impressive. Mainstream adoption feels like a bit of stretch, however -- $400 (while ultimately extremely affordable in the relative sense) is still a lot to pay for a technology without a proven consumer track record. There still aren't that many desktop 3D printers out in the world, and the price of having Cubify print something out means it's not likely to be a regular occurrence for most. One 3D Systems rep mentioned the fact that he's been using the technology to capture "life moments" like a pregnant wife -- but we don't see people sharing 3D models on Instagram in the immediate future. Still, it's hard not to be excited by the tremendous potential future for mainstream 3D scanning and printing that the Sense represents.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this report.