Now that your phone (or iPad) is pretty much as good at almost anything your laptop or PC can do, what is the future of the home computer?
If you ask HP, it’s something between an iMac, a projector and a portal into another dimension.
The first realisation of that concept the HP Sprout. It’s big, weird, £1899 and sort of half-finished.
But it’s also an intriguing beginning for what could be a dramatic new form of personal computing.
At first glance the HP Sprout (pre-order and full specs here) looks something like a normal 23-inch PC with a giant, white mousemat underneath. And that’s because it is. If you wanted to use the machine as a straightforward, touchscreen Windows 8.1 computer you could - if a pretty large and odd-looking one. But once you turn it on you’ll realize the Sprout is actually very different from any PC you've used before.
Your first clue will be the blinding white light 20-inch second screen suddenly visible on the flexible mousemat.
This is thanks to the ‘HP Illuminator’, a hardware projector and camera combination that turns the spill-proof mat into a 1920 x 1080 pixels touch input monitor, operating in concert with the main screen. It is able to respond to 20 touch inputs at once and let you move dozens of digital ‘objects’ around a canvas, rotate 3D objects and even act as a keyboard.
But that’s not all: the Illuminator also features a 14.6-megapixels camera at the top of the stand, with an Intel RealSense 3D sensor which is able to capture 2D and 3D objects.
The concept is simple: HP wants you to take real objects, and zap them into your machine. And it pretty much works. You can place anything on the mat — toys, flowers, whatever - press a (projected) button and have them pop up as separate, editable objects on your Sprout's canvas - either for simple layout design (pinch to expand, move to, well, move) or for use in Photoshop, or any other app.
You can also place a 3D object on the mat and bring that into the digital world too - though with more caveats and problems in execution. The psychedelic light-based scanning process is simple, and exports a nice, rough topographical model which you can flip about on screen. You can then import that file into a 3D printing app, modeling suite or any other design tool. But it doesn’t capture objects from different angles, and in practice you’re going to end up with something a little bit… abstract.
This grab-bag of hardware and software ideas - none are themselves unique, but they are unique in combination -mean that in practice the HP Sprout is a lot of fun to play with — if you’re approaching with an open mind.
The hardware is solid, for one. The PC itself is high-spec and as good as any Windows 8.1 machine. The projected screen is bright and easy to see, at least in relatively shady surroundings, and the touch input is impressive. Capturing objects, particularly in 2D, is fun, and it’s equally intuitive to arrange images, export them and collaborate with other users over HP’s own messaging software.
And it gets more interesting when you think more broadly about the design and artistic possibilities, rather than HP’s pre-arranged demos of flower arranging and collage. You can use Sprout to make stop-motion animation, to build video games with real-world objects and broadcast live drawing and painting sessions on the web. You can use it to capture and 3D print keepsakes, experiment with new types of games, or just store your receipts digitally. You can place printed worksheets on the mat, and have Sprout project 3D models and images onto the paper — an amazing new tool for the classroom.
“We’re creating a tool more than an app,” said Brad Short, Distinguished Technologist at HP. “You can almost think of it as a virtual clipboard that can become part of your every day. That’s different to thinking about it as a scrapbooking app. It gets pigeonholed that way, but Sprout is not just that. It’s about the ability of a computer to think in a more visual way.”
All of this is fresh and innovative. But right now the execution isn’t quite at the point where we'd recommend you spend almost £2,000 to get one into your home, and it feels like HP knows it.
One of the problems is software. Sprout currently runs on HP Workspace, an operating system ‘layer’ built on top of Windows 8.1. The machine boots automatically into this interface, which allows you to easily manage, drag and drop stored images and models and run purpose-build apps from an all-new app store. Unfortunately it’s a little clunky. None of the apps we demoed are particularly lovely, and many of the concepts — a piano, a DJ system - already have perfectly excellent analogues on touchscreen devices. Moreover it’s pretty confusing to work between the two ‘layers’ at once: you can copy and paste from Workspace to Windows, but you can’t capture images straight into Photoshop.
To an extent this is fixable. HP told us that Windows is ‘positive’ about the Sprout concept, and obviously sees some potential links with its own augmented reality project HoloLens. The likelihood is that something like Sprout, if not Sprout itself, will eventually become more embedded in Windows OS — especially considering Windows 10’s move away from separated touch and desktop experiences. It will need to be. Even traditional paper printers continue to bamboozle many users, despite decades of attempting to make them work nicely with Windows.
In addition there are some problems with the core functionality of the current Sprout hardware: the 3D depth scanning needs tightening up, and needs a way to capture objects from different angles, and the hardware needs to be slimmer and less raw in appearance.
It also needs help from developers, both creative studios (may we suggest Fifty-Three?) but also Adobe, Autodesk and Microsoft, each of who HP says it is talking to about closer integrations with the hardware.
“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Short. “We have to get the product out and prove its sustainability, and we’re doing that. You’ll see some really good partnerships that ensure the stability of this platform that contribute to its success.”
Other problems with Sprout seem more difficult to tackle. For instance, since the system projects from above, your hands (or pen) obscures the image when you're moving it about. You can’t see what’s directly under your hands, and so it’s difficult to make subtle or careful strokes in the same way as with a dedicated graphics tablet like a Wacom Cintiq — or an iPad.
The HP Sprout is essentially a concept device - a vision of a possible future. And there are obvious places for HP to go with it that could simplify its appeal. The entire projector and mat could be separated from the machine, for instance - meaning you could buy one to sit alongside your 3D printer and laptop, and not have to replace your PC. There could be smaller versions designed to work with mobile devices, or even bigger versions for large scale installations. Right now HP says building it directly into a PC helps maintain quality and simplicity - but they admit that this is a jumping-off point, not a final destination.
“It’s showing a new direction,” said Short. “It’s called Sprout because it’s the beginning of something, it’s not the final thing or product in itself. It’s the start of a new way of interacting.”