Hewlett Packard’s New Sprout Aims to Bridge Physical and Digital Worlds

29 Oct 2014 | Author: | No comments yet »

HP Sprout All-In-One (and Then Some) Combines Projector, Touch Mat, 3-D Scanner.

The desktop PC has been evolving rapidly in recent years, but things weren’t moving fast enough for HP, which just announced what it hopes will be the first in a new category of immersive computing devices, the HP Sprout. At its core its a touch-enabled Windows 8 all-in-one, but it’s the way you interact with it that makes it unique – the computer comes with an in-built projector, a ‘touch mat’ where said projector displays images, and a 3D scanner to place real objects onto your virtual workspace.

Going well beyond mere touch capability, the Sprout combines an all-in-one desktop PC with Intel’s RealSense technology, plus a combination scanner and projector, and a touch-sensitive projection surface that brings all sorts of new possibilities to the PC. It’s a PC, and it runs Windows, but it has two displays—one of which is a touch mat that lays flat on your desk, about where you’d place a keyboard.

That means you scan in a 3D object, and then manipulate it on screen or 3D print it, and interact with projects and apps with your hands, rather than a mouse, by moving your hands or a stylus underneath the depth camera. As hinted last week, the company has launched Sprout, a 23-inch computer that completely ditches the mouse and keyboard in favor of a built-in projector called “Illuminator”, and multi-touch capacitive touch for an immersive experience that reminds us of Minority Report. The touch mat supports pen input, and is meant to help designers and creatives be able to naturally integrate real world objects into their virtual creations – it’s like an integrated Wacom tablet on steroids.

Sprout also allows collaboration: users can video conference on the main display and then interact with the same document – whether it’s photos or spreadsheets – on the “canvas” in front of the machine. HP says that this unprecedented (and, yes, unusual) combo will let users to “take items from the physical world and seamlessly merge them into the digital workspace.” The screen up top is a 23-inch 1920×1080-pixel touch display. It’s not only the hardware: HP has also made its own software, and already has apps from Evernote, Microsoft Office, Skype and more. “The technology here will be extended to new form factors – mobile form factors and others,” said Ron Coughlin, senior vice president of imaging and printing.

In the single configuration that will be sold at launch, the Sprout comes equipped with an Intel Core i7-4790S processor, 8GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GT 745A with 2GB of DDR3 dedicated memory, and a 1TB hybrid drive that combines a 1TB hard drive with 8GB of solid-state memory for faster performance. HP has given this whole system the auspicious name “Illuminator.” The company says there will be apps built specifically for the Sprout rig that will allow users in multiple locations around the world to work on projects together in real time. HP said it would go on sale for $1,899 on 9 November at BestBuy and Microsoft Stores, but only in limited locations; UK availability wasn’t known at the time of publishing, but HP said it would eventually roll out to other countries.

This combination of components makes the Sprout one of the better all-in-ones offered by HP, though the Sprout differs so greatly from a traditional desktop that HP prefers we avoid calling it a PC. The most stunning aspect of the Sprout is the built-in projector, scanner, and cameras, all of which are contained in what HP calls the Illuminator Column, which runs up the back of the system and bends into an arm over the display. While most associate 3D printing with commercial machines spray melted plastic, which can be slow and prone to errors, HP’s technology is closer to laser sintering, which uses lasers to heat and fuse powders.

HP’s system puts down a layer of powdered material in a similar way to an ink jet printer, and then applies a fusing agent using as many as 30,000 nozzles spraying up to 350 million drops a second, and then exposes it to an energy source to fuse it; that process is repeated to build the object. HP’s software dubbed Workspace, enables it to run several apps including a range of Sprout’s, and Windows Start screen and any Modern apps right on the mat. HP’s president of printers Steve Nigro said it was more than ten times as fast as existing systems, and printed objects more cheaply and to a higher quality. Plus he promised sharper colours, and the ability to change the texture of a part or its properties – such as making one section elastic. “It’s not just a 3D printer, it’s a tool to trigger the next industrial revolution,” said Dion Weisler, head of personal systems group and the future CEO for HP Inc.

Short booted the Sprout, and it went straight to Workspace, an HP interface that overlays the Windows 8.1 interface. (Short told me that HP had to cajole Microsoft into allowing a direct boot to something other than Windows’ own Start screen.) The Sprout will launch with a few third-party apps. More from WSJ.D: And make sure to visit WSJ.D for all of our news, personal tech coverage, analysis and more, and add our XML feed to your favorite reader. The HP multi jet fusion 3D printer is targeted at commercial and enterprise users, not consumers, though HP suggested it may move into other markets eventually. Users can scan photos, books, and even objects, which can then be included in existing projects or can be edited, with the bundled HP Create editing tool.

Among other apps, Sprout also comes with the HP Rooms group conferencing app that allows it to share workspace between different Windows 8.x-powered devices. To my eyes, it looked extremely intuitive, in much the same way that gesture controls on the Leap Motion Controller offer intuitive interaction, but without having to relearn the ins and outs for every app. The latter is a particularly intriguing tool that uses the RealSense depth-sensing cameras and Structured Light 3D scanning—the same process used in the Ortery 3D MFP—to get a fully rendered 3D scan of any small object that can fit on the 20-inch Touch Mat.

Short scanned a few small objects and showed me how you could take, say, an everyday award certificate and scan it, then scan a real prize ribbon or even a flower, and put all those images together to customize the certificate. The system runs Windows 8.1, but HP has added an app called HP Workspace on top of that, which includes collaboration tools that let you use the lower display for continued working while using the top screen for video conferencing with one or more people. Used in conjunction with tools like HP MyRoom, which allows files to be shared and edited collaboratively across networks, it’s a powerful tool for virtual teams.

Short set up an image on his Sprout’s Touch Mat, while colleagues set up a free app called MyRoom on an HP Android tablet and an adjacent Sprout demo unit. They could also see images of each other, as you would in a traditional conferencing app. “We see Sprout as something to bring people together in an immersive way,” said Short. But the real question is where this technology will be used, and whether or not it will get the sort of adoption and support needed to realize HP’s vision of “a new, holistic computing category.” The unique collection of parts and capabilities offered by the Sprout leave me questioning where this device fits in. It plans to seed a few hundred Sprouts to beta users—“makers, techies, educators” is how Monsef described them—so HP can “listen and learn.” It’s taking preorders for the Sprout’s ship date of November 9, and it also plans to set up HP-staffed, in-store Sprout shops in 50 Best Buy stores and 30 Microsoft stores nationwide.

But I do know that its invitation to create using our hands merges the virtual and the real in a way that could make computing easier, and perhaps even inspiring. The 3D scanning and printing categories are still so young that there are no set-in-stone practices and the various tools and capabilities needed form a real barrier to entry for many.

There are several possible uses, but I don’t know of any single use case where this system will be a silver bullet for any significant problems, and the switch to an entirely new combination of devices could cause problems of its own.

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