The pair photographed two statues from the Walters collection from every conceivable angle using their cellphone cameras. Then, they used free software to convert those images into digital blueprints.

"I'm able to sculpt with lots of materials, from cheese to titanium," said Blatt, 30, who owns a company called Custom 3D Stuff that crafts everything from movie props to plastic and metal jewelry.

Last February, at the Farpoint science fiction convention in Timonium, Blatt stumbled upon a new use for 3D printing.

"After I did my presentation, a lady who was blind came up to me," he said. "She told me she didn't have any sense of what she looks like."

When the woman touched another person's face, her fingertips provided the sensory impressions to create a mental image. But, when she touched her own face, the feedback from her facial skin interfered with the feedback from her fingertips.

"I was able to print out a 3D sculpture of her, and for the first time, she was able to tell what she looked like," Blatt said.

In fact, the printer is similar in concept to the "replicator" in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" that could conjure up "tea, Earl Grey, hot." In real life, NASA expects to have a $125,000 contract with a Texas-based engineering corporation by the end of the week to "print" such food as pizzas using powdered forms of existing nutrients that could be used for space travel, according to NASA spokesman David Steitz.

Systems and Materials Research Consultancy writes that their system potentially could help "avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars."

The "Star Trek: the Next Generation Technical Manual" states that replicator technology available in the 24th century wasn't sophisticated enough "to recreate living objects."

But Hopkins scientist Warren Grayson is trying to do just that.

Grayson, an assistant professor of biochemical engineering, is using a 3D printer to help construct a six-centimeter portion of the lower jaw.

His team is printing out a biodegradable polymer mold, or "scaffold." Stem cells harvested from a patient whose jaw has been destroyed could be inserted into the scaffold, and the cells would be given chemical cues to grow into bone.

"This would be the first biological implant, and it would give us a much better outcome than our current best-case scenario," said Grayson, noting that the technique is still years away from being implanted in real patients. "It's exciting, and it's kind of like science fiction."

Grayson's colleagues at other research institutions are going a step further and working with soft tissue. Last month, the San Diego-based Organovo Inc. announced in a news release that it had "printed" a tiny amount of liver tissue that lived for five days outside the human body.

The potential of the rapidly emerging technology excites some people and worries others.

"Some people see 3D printing and project only results that are good, while others project only results that are not so good," said Michael Weinberg, an attorney and vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based digital advocacy group.

"I call it the mirror fallacy. On balance, I think we'll be richer as a society for having 3D printing, just as we're richer for having electricity and airplanes and the Internet. They, too, were once considered disruptive technologies. Disruptions help us grow and renew. Without disruptions, we'd become stagnant."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com