Innovation springs up in the gaps between the available and the unimagined, so it follows that applying a familiar technology towards a familiar goal can still feel unexpected. The Mink makeup printer debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt, and sits solidly in the penumbral zone between Wacky-Futuristic and Both-Obvious-&-Feasible. Simply put, Mink is a printer for make-up. Using the primary functions of inkjet printing with cosmetic grade inks and substrates, inventor Grace Choi wants to turn a mundane technology into one of the most practical applications of 3D printing that I've seen yet.
The Mink proposition is to take the good parts of boutique cosmetics retailers (quality materials and niche color options) and mass-market retailers (low cost, high accessibility), and ramp them both up. Prestige brands capitalize on on-trend colors that you can't find at a standard drugstore or Walmart, charging incredibly high prices for materials that are only marginally different from cheaper options. Meanwhile, mass market vendors keep costs down by streamlining color and material options, which drastically reduces the diversity of options... to the dismay of color-hungry and non-Caucasian makeup consumers.
Choi's solution would allow home users to use any imaging software (from MS Paint to Photoshop) to capture any digitally rendered color, save the hex code, and print it directly into the desired base material, using nothing but FDC certifiable dyes and bases. Pure, custom makeup, on demand. Choi raised eyebrows by live-printing eyeshadow at the TechCrunch event, and specifically mentioned the possibility of working with the different media needed for different types of makeup, from foundation to lipstick to powders.By most accounts, Mink is still in the prototype stage, and Choi is duly vague on the technical details and the current status of development. If her assertions are accurate, the prototype is in the middle stages of refinement, and will be marketable in the "near future" at a $200–300 price point for a teenage/young adult target audience. The claims made are a little grand, sure, but interesting. Anyone who's ever used different brands of make up (or paint, for that matter) can attest that formula is absolutely vital to the end result, and a much more complex issue than just choosing a color. (Some online critics, as per usual, are fired up enough to call her whole concept a hoax, but it's the mechanical concept I'm concerned with.) I suspect that the pigment ration and base density could in fact be adjusted to the user's preference without much drama. The key point is that core ingredients in the majority of cosmetics can be combined to personal specification via inkjet—and that is a rad point, even if it's still in beta.
With the wildfire adoption of online style-sharing platforms, DIY tutorials and online shopping, we're seeing an increasingly small gap between "street fashion" and organic trends, and what is being offered commercially. A product like the Mink printer could genuinely open up the possibility of personalizing cosmetics, potentially denting mass market producers' influence on consumption and use trends, and changing the cycle of demand-creation. Choi herself noted that there is a feedback loop between a user's desire for a product and those readily available—if companies don't sell it, you're less likely to see your interests and experiences as valid. Can't find green lipstick, or foundation in your shade of brown? Well, you must be the weird one... not the industry that exists solely to reinforce and profit off of your perceived flaws and internalized ideas about beauty.
Whether you see cosmetics as a source of creative personal expression, an enactment of institutionalized sexism, or something else entirely, an in-home printer for the stuff could profoundly change how users relate to the product. In a society where womens' appearance still holds the greatest sway over their perceived social value, any increase in user empowerment could be a good thing.