As a child Dr. Sina Samangooei thought everyone had sculptures and dot matrix print outs of the heads of family friends lying around their homes.
That's because Samangooei's father got into the 3D printing industry in the mid-80s, when it all began. Samangooei was only 4 or 5 years old at the time, and he didn't understand the novelty of what his father was doing.
Later, when Samangooei became a professor at Britain's University of Southampton, he came to appreciate the cutting edge nature of what his father had been doing all those years ago.
That's why when he came across a stack of floppy disks from 1988 with his father's work on it earlier this year, he enlisted his colleague, Dr. Jonathon Hare, to try and print the files.
"I guess it has certainly given me something more to talk to (his father) about," Samangooei said. "He's getting a real kick out of seeing our renditions of models he was working on 20 or 25 years ago. Also it's fun going through his old things and hearing stories about the project, the people that were involved, old friends etc."
The files were so old though, that the team had neither the hardware nor software to read them, so they launched into a bit of "digital archeology."
"It's quite incredible that things are now moving so fast that it's a real problem to read data that is only 25 years old," Hare said. "Part of the problem is because of a lack of foresight at the dawn of the digital age. Technology was advancing so quickly that there were no standards and no thought was really given as to whether something would still be readable in 10 years time.
"In the modern age, the situation is improving slightly as we now have standard and well documented formats for common types of data, and clear migration pathways are often developed," he continued.
Some of the files were in MS DOS format, so they could be read on a standard PC once the team was able to hunt down a floppy disk drive.
"However, the majority of (the files) turned out to be in a rare HP unix (HPUX) format that was only used for a specific type of computer in the mid to late 80's, the HP Integral Personal Computer, or IPC," Hare said.
It didn't get any easier once they figured out what kind of code they were looking at either.
"Unfortunately, nothing is simple and even though we were able to compile the software to run on a modern computer, it would crash immediately," Hare said. "After a bit of digging, we determined that the problem was that the software (and the original disks) assumed a big-endian CPU architecture, whereas most modern PCs have a little-endian architecture."
So the two started scrounging around the office's junk pile and found a computer with a big-endian architecture, an old PowerPC iMac from around 2003, that was able to run the software and extract some of the data files.
"Some of the disks still didn't work properly with this software, so we also had to write some software of our own to get the data off," Hare said.
Even then they weren't in the clear because they still didn't know anything about the file formats or how the 3D data was encoded.
So it was back to searching. They found a web site of a now defunct company that sold 3D scanners in the late 80s and were able to get the software to read the files. Once they cracked the code though, the two were amazed how easily it was to actually 3D print the files.
The two have printed nine files so far, some as big as 7.5 inches tall. Their favorite is a bust of English radio and television personality Maggie Philbin that was made for an 80s show called, "Tomorrow's World," which Hare watched growing up.
The team isn't stopping now though.
"It would certainly be interesting to see what other models we can dig up," Hare said. "We've also just got hold of two disks labeled "source code," which will be interesting to explore – maybe they will hold the key to improving the process of recovering the data.
"(Samangooei) would also certainly like to make some prints of his relatives that we have scans for, they would make great presents!" he said.