Hands On With the Weird But Intriguing HP Sprout
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.
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. Is it the future of desktop computing? We went hands on with the Sprout to find out.
Get to Know Sprout At its heart, the HP Sprout is built around a well-appointed HP TouchSmart all-in-one PC. 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.
On the front and sides of the unit are two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot. On the back, the Sprout boasts Ethernet, HDMI output, and two USB 2.0 ports. 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. Inside this column is a projector, scanner, and several cameras that capture images, infrared, depth, and more. Part and parcel with this collection of cameras is Intel's RealSense, a 3D photography technology that is first coming to market on the Sprout. All of these elements work together thanks to custom optics and purpose-built software.
The projected image shines down onto the integrated Touch Mat, a specialized surface that combines capacitive touch with a precision projection screen designed to diffuse light in a uniform fashion to provide good visibility from all angles in all sorts of lighting situations. The projected image serves as a second screen, projected top down onto the touchpad, which itself offers 20-point tracking. The Touch Mat connects to the system with a magnetic docking connector that clicks easily into place, so there's no fumbling with cables or worrying about the quirks of wireless pairing.
During a demonstration with HP representatives, we were shown how the touch capability and projected image allow the Touch Mat to serve as a second screen for the system, and are designed for more intuitive content manipulation (as in paint and design programs), with touch and stylus input (the Sprout comes with HP's Jot Stylus). 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. HP includes several apps for taking advantage of the Sprout for content creation and collaboration, like HP Create, which is one part photo editor and one part scrapbooking and design tool.
The Touch Mat also serves as the bed for scanning images, documents, and objects. The scanner offers high-resolution scanning, and HP's proprietary tools like Doc Scanner and 3D Snapshot. 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. Thanks to the incredible array of sensors built into the device, it will also capture these scans in full color, with nearly pixel-perfect accuracy. The 3D Snapshot software also allows you to take multiple scans of an object from several sides, combining them into a seamless virtual object.
Even setting aside the impressive scanning and content creation applications of the Sprout, the addition of a second display opens up other novel uses for the PC. 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. It runs on top of standard Windows, integrating all of the common software and apps with Sprout's unique capabilities. 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.
Other apps hint at untapped possibilities, like a revamped version of the app PianoTime, a touch app that puts a piano keyboard on your screen. On a normal touch screen with an upright orientation, the virtual piano is just a toy, but with the keys projected onto the Touch Mat and a tool for visualizing and recording music in the top screen of the Sprout, PianoTime becomes a music-creation tool. Other apps, like Gameplay from Gesture Works gives you customizable controls on one screen for use with all sorts of other games. Originally designed to let you use a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone as a controller for PC games, the modified version available for Sprout uses the second screen that's part of the system.
First Impressions Certainly the HP Sprout is an impressive combination of technologies, and the integration of touch, projection, and scanning (both 2D and 3D) is a notable achievement for HP. 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.
Is it a PC for designers, looking to use the scanning and content-manipulation tools to speed their workflow? This may be the best bet, since this is the first time I've seen all of these different devices combined so well. I could also see the collaboration tools being quite useful for creative teams to work together without needing physical proximity. Is it the 3D-printing enthusiast using it as their go-to 3D scanner? Again, maybe. 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. Is this a consumer device or an enterprise machine? 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.
As for the usability and value of the Sprout, I was very impressed by what I saw during the demo and hands-on time I had with the product. At first blush this is a very cool device, with some real potential, but I can't speak to the nuts and bolts capability of the machine without further testing and benchmarking.
The HP Sprout will be available for pre-order starting today through HP.com, and will be coming to select retailers, including Best Buy and Microsoft Stores, starting Nov. 9. Only on configuration is available, and it will sell for $1,899.