Peek into any of the commercial garages dotting San Francisco’s Mission District and you’ll find a mix of auto body shops and startups working on gleaming black-and-silver gizmos. On an intensely sunny afternoon in April, Shaper’s staff rolled up its garage door to reveal a cluster of workbenches—all made by Shaper’s handheld woodcutting tool, Origin, which goes on sale today.

You may not think of yourself as a woodworker, but the founders of Shaper can change that. The tool is built to take the mystery—and most of the skill—out of cutting even complex shapes from a piece of wood. Grab Origin by the handles, place it on a piece of wood, and start tracing along the edges of the shape on Origin’s touchscreen. The drill bit will automatically correct for your wobbly, inexperienced hands.

“While it’s really complex robotics under the hood, for users it’s kind of magic,” CEO Joe Hebenstreit says. “We want people to take the technology for granted.”


Under the Hood

About the size and heft of a toaster, Origin is one part augmented-reality machine and one part robot. When you place it on a surface, it takes a picture of its surroundings. Removable strips of tape covered in domino-like markings help it get its bearings. As you move the tool, it refers to the picture and tape to keep track of its location. Veer off the path you are supposed to be tracing with Origin and it will automatically stop cutting—a confidence-building trick made possible by Shaper’s uniquely developed computer vision.

Cheaper than a traditional CNC machine and more mobile, Origin can cut pieces of any size. In April, Shaper’s staff trained me to use it in about 5 minutes. I selected a star from its on-screen library and placed the virtual shape on a piece of wood. I watched the screen as I nudged Origin back and forth. Pushing a button on one of the handles prompted the tool to autonomously cut small details like the star’s points. It produces a lot of sawdust.

Once you master your new role as Origin’s shepherd, you grow bold. Shaper’s office is dotted with both practical and whimsical creations built by the tool. There are puzzles, cutting boards, and modern-looking furniture cut from varying types of wood. A whole world opens up to you in a day.

But there’s a limiting factor. Not everyone is adept at design. Shaper offers a few alternatives, the quickest being the on-board library that lets you drop simple or saved shapes onto a piece of wood. You can also get out a pencil and draw directly on the wood surface. There’s a story of cofounder Alec Rivers breaking a chair leg. Instead of painstakingly replicating the leg on a computer, he put the two pieces together and traced them, then cut a fresh leg with Origin. Origin’s camera picks up the pencil marks and converts them into a digital shape.

A Google Pedigree

Rivers dreamt up a predecessor to Origin after struggling to use a tool set he inherited from his grandfather. So he turned to tech, enlisting designers and engineers from the former Google Glass team to help him build Origin.

Hebenstreit says that while Glass marked a historic venture into new territory for human augmentation and wearable devices, he never felt like he was building it for himself. The first applications felt more commercial than personal. It was also difficult to turn the discussion from wearing something on your face to what the technology could actually do.

Origin, on the other hand, has an immediately obvious purpose. While it’s an attractive looking tool, it’s built to work. When you have it in your hands, you feel like you can get things done.

“It should not even be something you think about,” says Jeremy Blum, Shaper’s electrical engineering lead. “You pick it up and it does exactly what you expect the way you expect it to.”

The tool, which ships next year for around $1,500, puts some rather complex woodworking within reach for casual carpenters. There’s no need to invest in an extensive set of tools or worry about silly mistakes (you will need nails, though).

“This is definitely the future of how I see man and machine interacting with one another,” Hebenstreit says. “It’s technology enabling a human to do something they weren’t able to before.”


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