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3D tech adds art, design to custom prosthetics

Bespoke Innovations is forever changing the way amputees feel about themselves--and altering how the world looks at them.

Triathlete Sarah Reinertsen poses for her 3D scanning at Bespoke Innovations in San Francisco. The record-setting triathlete lost her leg when she was seven and is now working with Bespoke on a custom fairing to cover her prosthetic left leg.
James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--For people like Sarah Reinertsen, one of the many downsides of having a prosthetic leg is that there's never been a fashionable way to dress it up.

But for Reinertsen, a record-setting triathlete, and others including a growing number of combat veterans, a startup called Bespoke Innovations is forever changing the way they feel about themselves and how the world looks at them.

Bespoke was founded by industrial designer Scott Summit and orthopedist Kenneth Trauner. The company's initial products are what are known as fairings--3D printed prosthetic leg covers that are each one-of-a-kind and designed for and with each of the company's customers.

According to Summit, the idea behind the fairings is to give each customer something that is tied to their personality and enhances their individual sense of style, but which is also light-weight yet structurally sound. And that's possible, he explained, because of Bespoke's proprietary scanning system, a process that creates a digital 3D model based on each customer's specific physical specifications. It's also possible because the high-end 3D printing process the company uses is able to generate a final product that is both structurally sound, intricate, and unique.

To look at one of Bespoke's fairings, you wouldn't necessarily know what it's meant for. Some look more like Maori or Aboriginal art pieces than something someone would wear every day. But for people like Reinertsen, a Bespoke fairing may well be a way to say to the world that having a prosthetic leg doesn't mean that they can't strut their stuff.

"I'd like to create something beautiful and something that's different," said Reinertsen, who's currently in the process of having her fairing designed. "I want to have what we create be something totally different and unique and in some way pushes [Summit] to think a little different--something that keeps him inspired. He certainly inspired me."

The scan
Although there's a lot of artistry behind each of Bespoke's fairings, there would be no way for the company to tailor each one to the individual customer if not for its scanning process (see video below). The system incorporates two cameras that are offset from each other and which, when activated, read the shape, contour, and form of the customer's body.

The scanner projects a grid pattern at the customer--and against a wall behind them--and is able to triangulate and get a contour using a technology called structural light scanning. The system incorporates the two photos taken by the cameras, "does a whole lot of trigonometry and then meshes them" together into the 3D digital model.

Once that process is done and Bespoke has the digital model, the real work of differentiating each customer's fairing from the others begins. "The difference between designing for a fit soldier and a tall, [slim] woman and grandma versus any other personality and body type," Summit said, means "communicating the morphology in the design so it belongs, and that has to do with artistry and design."

While there's no typical Bespoke customer, the company is clearly interested in working with combat veterans, particularly because it has established relationships with several of the Veterans Administration facilities around the country. Summit said that the U.S. military has often been supportive of some soldiers' wish to get a Bespoke fairing--which can cost several thousand dollars--because "if someone lost their leg for the country, they should be treated well."

Summit said that Bespoke has generated a lot of interest from soldiers because its fairings take "prosthetics from being generic and utilitarian into something cool as hell, and that really works for a soldier."

From man-hole covers to Banksy
At any given time, Bespoke, which received $3.2 million in venture funding, has about 10 customers' fairings in the works. All told, it takes between one and three days of work to create a fairing, but that may be spread over a much longer amount of time as the customer and the design team bat ideas back and forth. What's most important, Summit said, is making sure that what the customer walks away with is something that suits their individual personality. "This is like a tattoo," he said. "We don't want it to be too spontaneous."

Indeed, Summit explained that he often suggests his customers sleep on a design concept before settling on what they want. He also encourages them to send in their own ideas, which can sometimes be rather abstract, and which can come from car or even motorcycle design. "It's about creating something dynamic and in motion," Summit said. "What's more dynamic than a leg."

But really, the ideas can be as personal or varied as people themselves. One customer, for example, sent him photos of a man-hole cover. Another was inspired by the Bruce Willis film "Surrogates." Still another found ideas for his fairing in his customized Volkswagen GTI. But Summit may be most excited about an upcoming commission which may feature a drawing by the famous graffiti artist Banksy.

For the 36-year-old Reinertsen, who has appeared as a contestant on [CNET parent CBS'] "The Amazing Race" and featured in a Nike ad, getting a Bespoke fairing is a way to get past a lifetime of having to deal with a prosthetic that didn't do anything for her sense of personality. "It's unique and it's such a forward-thinking concept," Reinertsen said, "to create this covering for the prosthetic, but [which] doesn't adhere to the traditional ideas of what an amputee might strive for."

Reinertsen lost her leg to a medical condition when she was seven and has spent her whole life contending with prosthetics covers that were usually little more than "a foam leg with a flesh-tone stocking." The standard, she said, has always been "pretty low."

But now, though her insurance won't pay for her Bespoke fairing, she has a chance to get something that she can feel proud of when she goes out into the world. "As an athlete, I've been pushing boundaries, especially in endurance, and proving that a woman with a disability can do something as extreme as Ironman," she said. "And I want to be part of a cultural shift that changes your idea of what is beautiful as we rebuild the human body in the modern world."