Last spring, Karl Stiefvater received a package from a 3D-printing service bureau and opened it with care. Inside was a tiny transparent bubble no wider than a pencil eraser. It encased three human figurines the size of gnats. To view them, Stiefvater had to use a magnifying glass.
“They were smaller than I’d expected,” he said. “But it was a perfect test.”
Stiefvater had been skeptical, up to that moment, that the service bureau could pull this off — at one point, he had even arranged for the engineers who manufacture the 3D-printer to explain to the service bureau workers how to use the machine to turn his ideas into reality. Yet upon receipt of his figurines, he knew he’d made progress. His goal: to make objects that are miniscule yet increasingly well-detailed so that they’ll look lifelike under liquid and curved glass.
Stiefvater is the CEO of Snow Day, a startup in St. Louis that makes custom, one-of-a-kind snow globes. He and his co-founders — his wife Lisa Donahue and their friend, Amy VanDonsel — have figured out how to put a replica of any object into a hand-held winter wonderland. They started out with buildings; now they want to add recognizable people, and even get down to the level of needles on a pine tree. In doing so, they’re pushing the limits of how exact 3D-printed replicas can be.
So far, they’ve made globes containing replicas of a pet dog; a bottle of ranch dressing (made for Hidden Valley); and a tall-boy can of City Wide pale ale (made for 4 Hands Brewing Co.). They’ve even crafted landmarks, such as the Indian statue that stands at the corner of Cherokee Street and Jefferson Avenue and, as it happens, is just a half-block from their basement studio in the Nebula co-working space.
But Snow Day’s specialty is making a snow globe of homes — anybody’s home. Not an imagined, picturesque home. It’s your home — be it the one you grew up in, the one you inhabit or the one you must leave. The home with all of the idiosyncrasies to which you’re emotionally attached: the hue of the front door, the shape of the windows, the slight lean in the chimney.
You might assume this concept would be easy to convey. Anybody who steps into a portrait studio, for example, instantly grasps that the smiling family photos on the walls are just mock-ups to help you visualize your own family in the frame. But with snow globes, the co-founders said, folks see the models and don’t always make the connection.
“One problem is, people can’t conceptualize that this is going to be their house,” said Donahue.
One reason may be that, until very recently, the technology for accomplishing this at a reasonable price just didn’t exist, so few even considered it.
But now, that technology does exist. To understand how Snow Day harnesses it and sells it, you need to know a bit more about Karl Stiefvater’s impressive coding pedigree, about a concept called photogrammetry and about how, in certain cases, Snow Day requires footage captured by drones.
You may have already beheld Karl Stiefvater’s handiwork and not realized it. A native of St. Louis and graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, he has been working in visual effects for more than two decades. He helped to build infrastructure for the online virtual world “Second Life” and also contributed some effects to “Riven,” the sequel to the iconic computer game “Myst.”
Remember in the film “300” that scene with the undulating fields of wheat, or the scene in which King Leonides kicks the Persian emissary into the bottomless pit? Stiefvater created those visuals. Remember the swarming sentinels in the battle sequences of “Matrix: Revolutions”? He did those, too.
Stiefvater lived for much of the aughts in California, where these movies were produced. He also met Donahue there, but in 2009, the couple relocated to St. Louis — to be near family, he said, and also so their daughter could experience Missouri’s snowy winters.
In 2015, they made a splash by co-founding Pikazo, an app that relies on a neural network AI to transform a source image — say, a cell-phone photo of your cat — into a work of art in the style of your choosing, be it impressionism, pointillism, cubism or something else. Pikazo needed some small-business support, so Stiefvater and Donahue enlisted their friend VanDonsel to help with project managing and marketing. By May 2016, they had raised a half-million dollars from strategic angel investors.
Within a couple of years, however, they decided to hand over control of the app to the largest investor.
“We were trying to figure out what to do next,” Stiefvater recalled. “It was either start something new or take day jobs.”
They turned their focus on a steady trickle of emails that Stiefvater had been fielding for several years. In the Christmas season of 2011, he had crafted for Donahue a snow globe with a tiny copy of their St. Louis house inside. He laid out his process the following month on his personal blog, qarl.com.
“she loves it,” he wrote, “i love it. everyone loves it. so here’s how you can make one for yourself . . .”
Then he listed 12 steps to follow. They were fairly technical; one was “import into meshlab and re-export as an X3D file. (remember to select only one source for texcoords and colors.)”
The post earned a shout-out by the prominent blogger Corey Doctorow on the website Boing Boing. Every holiday season thereafter, five to 10 emails would land in Stiefvater’s inbox from people around the world, asking him to make them a snow globe.
“We realized,” VanDonsel said, “that people are interested in doing this, but they’re not interested in making it themselves.”
Thus was born Snow Day. Transactions proceed like this: A client fills out an inquiry form, receives some feedback on the request and decides whether Snow Day is a good fit.
Sometimes, it clearly isn’t — for example, if the client wants to buy identical globes in bulk. That’s because there have been few economies of scale for the most expensive input — the 3D-printed replica. Stiefvater said customers wanting to order globes in bulk are steered toward Chinese companies, which make globes of inferior quality but charge a tenth of the price. Snow Day’s custom globes generally run between $300-$500 to purchase.
If the customer wants to stick with Snow Day, he or she places her order on Etsy. At that point, the startup sends instructions on how to shoot the video footage used to make a 3D scan of the home. (Outsourcing this task to the customer drastically widens the market size because Snow Day needn’t be present for it.)
The customer can capture the footage in one of two ways. A few laps around the home with a digital camera on “record” mode may suffice. If there are intricate features on top of the home, however, the customer might prefer to contract a drone pilot to make several passes at different elevations. And in that case, the burden of any bureaucratic red tape — licenses and permissions — is borne by the contracted pilots. (Sometimes this gets sticky; for instance, Snow Day had to turn down an order to globify the Ford Foundation building in Manhattan because the drone pilots didn’t want to navigate the airspace of the neighboring United Nations headquarters.)
Once Snow Day receives the footage, they feed it into software that Stiefvater has created drawing on open-source components. The program involves photogrammetry — a process in which you pick points in a video image and, as the camera angle shifts, monitor how the points move with respect to their neighbors in order to determine the object’s three-dimensional shape. (If the data proves patchy in a certain spot, Stiefvater can always cover it over with a patch of snow.)
Snow Day then sends this 3D information to a service bureau, which prints the replica and ships it back. Once it’s placed inside the globe, the replica appears larger than it really is because of the curvature of the glass (which acts as a lens) and the magnifying effect of the liquid (which is not water; Snow Day declined to divulge the substance.
In 2018, with the company’s first holiday season approaching, they knew they needed to get the word out — and fast. VanDonsel hatched a plan: They gave approximately 36 local artists — including Mary Engelbreit, Charles Houska, Cbabi Bayoc and Alicia LaChance — small houses to decorate. The startup then turned each house into a snow globe and auctioned them off at a local microbrewery in November, giving the proceeds to Assisi House, which provides winter shelter for the homeless.
After that, the orders poured in.
“We were pretty slammed all through November and December,” VanDonsel recalled.
Because snow globes are a seasonal product, though, spacing out the orders was a problem. The turnaround time for a globe is about six weeks — not ideal for a client who solicits Snow Day’s services in, say, mid-December. One way to relieve that pressure, VanDonsel suggested, would be a summer marketing blitz (e.g., “Christmas in July!”).
There’s another way to trim the turnaround: Buy a 3D printer. That’s much easier said than done. Snow Day has its eye on a cutting-edge machine manufactured by Stratasys. Rather than print an object using sand, dye and superglue, as the older-model printers do, this new model emits a liquid and shoots it with intense ultraviolet light so that it hardens. The price tag, Stiefvater said, hovers around $200,000.
But the new UV-cured resin model, now that it’s being used by some service bureaus, has allowed Snow Day to print objects with much finer detail. In an old printer, the branches on a tiny pine tree would be so fragile that they tended to break off during printing. But Stiefvater has found a way around this with the new model: he prints the fragile object while simultaneously printing a transparent bubble around it. The bubble not only protects the fragile object, but it also has no effect on the appearance of the snow globe because it becomes invisible when submerged in the fluid.
It took Stiefvater months to get the service bureau to fulfill the order. For one thing, both parties came to the realization that the bureau needed more advanced software. For another, his requests were atypical.
“They don’t have a serious demand for transparent objects, so they didn’t have their workflow to mix opaque and transparent objects,” he said. “But we finally got through to them.”
On the day the service bureau finally created his bubble with the gnat-sized figurines inside, an employee placed it on his fingertip, snapped a photo and emailed it to Stiefvater. It was zoomed in so close, the fingertip ridges looked like ropes. And instantly, the founder of Snow Day knew the test had been a success — that by finding a way to print smaller, his possibilities had been enlarged.
He emailed them back: “Haha, that’s perfect.”