Geo Week News

November 19, 2014

Primer on HP's Sprout, a PC and a 3D Scanner

Sprout video screenshot

HP’s new Sprout is the latest in a line of projects that combine 3D technologies and consumer computing.

Announced a few weeks ago (and, according to HP’s site, currently shipping in Mid-December) the computer interface looks like an extraterrestrial iMac–a screen, a mat where the keyboard and mouse would usually go, and an arm cantilevered over the top of the screen. As many who write about the Sprout are eager to point out, this arm is where the magic happens. It has a fittingly sci-fi name (“The Illuminator Column” would make a great movie title), and it contains a projector, a scanner, and several cameras, including Intel’s new RealSense 3D scanning camera. (You can read SPAR’s reporting on the RealSense technology here).

The arm can project an interface (say, a keyboard) on to the mat for you to manipulate with your hands. But it can also scan any object small enough to fit on the mat, allowing you to virtualize a real object and then manipulate it digitally using the touchscreen. HP demonstrates this in its own video. At the beginning you’ll see some mysterious hands scanning a paper crane which then instantly pops up on screen. (Personally, I doubt the scanning will really be that fast).

Here’s what some of the big guns in the tech world have to say about it, with my take at the end:

Techcrunch: Don’t get too attached to the idea of Sprout. It is “truly innovative,” and “pushes the desktop medium forward more than anything produced in recent memory.” Unfortunately, it’s also HP testing an unproven technology on its customers. Without developer support, there won’t be any innovative applications that make use of the interface, the Sprout will never be an viable system.

PC Mag: The Sprout is “weird but intriguing,” and it’s unclear who it’s meant for. “Maybe an answer to these questions will emerge once it’s actually on the market, but in the meantime, I don’t really see where this device is supposed to fit. 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.”

Engadget: The project is “unlike anything the company has made,” but this also means that it is a product in search of its market. “HP’s also hoping that a certain kind of consumer will appreciate this. Photo enthusiasts, perhaps, or maybe makers. Basically, if you do things with your hands, you might have a use for Sprout.”

Fast Company: The Sprout is a bold new technology hoping to actually CREATE a market that doesn’t yet exist. “[Brad Short, Distinguished Technologist with HP] told me that HP wants people to see the system as a new form of creative expression, and expects consumers to use the system in ways that it hasn’t anticipated.” Furthermore, “[HP] says that it plans to release frequent software updates which unlock new capabilities, including ones based on customer feedback. “We want to get this into people’s hands and let them help define it,” Short says. “We have a lot of crazy ideas, trust me.”

My Take: It looks like our best technologists still have no idea how to implement 3D technology in consumer computing. This is why it helps to think of the Sprout as a technological test, HP asking its customers to find ways to make this neat thing useful. Could you use it for design work? Probably. Is it going to be better than what you already have? Probably not.

Personally, though, I like to think of the Sprout as an early but creative attempt at melding the virtual and physical worlds for consumers, creating what HP sometimes refers to it as “blended reality.” Since consumer technology creates expectation for industrial and more demanding applications, who’s to say this won’t help drive the adoption of “blended reality” in more demanding applications, for instance a large facility. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a self-updating digital model of your facility?

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