Let’s just admit it: The desktop PC is fully baked.
It’s finished evolving in a meaningful way. We know what features it has and doesn’t have. We no longer upgrade every other year to keep up with the latest advances; there are no advances worth upgrading to so often.
That’s what makes the HP Sprout ($1,900) newsworthy. It truly is, as HP contends, a groundbreaking machine. No other computer can touch its innovations. It’s a surprisingly bold departure for such a lumbering, hidebound company.
And yet, in its 1.0 version, it’s teetering on the brink of failure.
The Sprout is, first of all, a beautiful, well-built, one-piece PC. It runs Windows 8.1, has 8 gigabytes of memory and a 1-terabye hard drive, bristles with ports, and comes with a wireless mouse and keyboard. It’s got a gorgeous 23-inch screen — a touchscreen, so you can work with both standard Windows programs and TileWorld touchscreen apps.
But onto this, HP has integrated two truly unusual elements.
First, there’s a floppy white 20-inch mat. At its top is a cool-looking metal docking connector that snaps magnetically and satisfyingly onto the front of the PC. (Similarly, when you don’t need it, you can just tug it away, although there’s no real reason to; when you’re typing, you can just put the mouse and keyboard on top of it.)
This mat is no ordinary mouse pad. It has a smooth, faintly textured, vinyl-like top surface that nothing can stain. (HP says that you can even get Sharpie marks off it, possibly with a squirt of cleaner.)
More to the point, this mat is also a touchscreen. Multitouch, actually. 20-point multitouch. You and a friend can use both hands to manipulate things on its surface simultaneously.
The image on this mat is projected down from the Sprout’s second unusual piece: an arm over the screen. It’s a projector, first of all, beaming a bright 1024 × 768-pixel image perfectly onto the mat.
The arm is also packed with cameras, and that’s where things get really interesting.
The Sprout PC is the first product in an HP initiative the company calls “blended reality,” and that’s really not marketing hype. It aims to knock down the walls between the physical and digital worlds.
When you want to scan something — a photo, a document, a contract — just put it onto the mat and hit one button. The Sprout snaps a scan and projects the result back down onto the mat, at actual size. There’s nothing like the moment when you pull your paper document off the mat — and see its image still sitting there. It’s crazy cool.
(By the way, it’s very difficult to photograph and film the Sprout. Cameras can’t properly expose the projected image and the screen image and the real world in the same shot. Sorry about that.)
The arm also does 3D scanning. You can put a physical object up to 8 inches tall onto the mat — and scan that. The arm projects a rapid pattern of black-and-white horizontal and vertical lines on the object as it scans. I’m sure it’s necessary for the process, but it’d be fine with me if HP had done that zebra-stripe business just to look cool. (You can see it in my video, above.)
Then the 3D object’s image appears on both the Sprout’s screen and on the mat. Using your fingers, you can turn, flip, shrink, and grow your virtual 3D object.
You can even turn it completely around so you’re looking at the bottom. Of course, the Sprout doesn’t have any opportunity to scan your object’s actual bottom, so you’re just seeing a concave, inside-out version of the top. But it’s a “wow” moment for sure.
The Sprout’s central app is called Create. In essence, it’s a touch-only drawing program. You can freely mix and match graphic objects from all kinds of sources:
- Things around you that you grab and scan on the spot.
- Images in the Sprout’s library of photos and images and backgrounds. (It’s fun: You touch it with your finger on the vertical screen and swipe to flick it down onto the mat.)
- Graphics on the Web. On the main screen, find an image; hold your finger down on it, tap Copy; tap the mat, choose Paste. (You can see it happening with the alligator in the video above.)
- 2D versions of your 3D scans. You can get a 3D scan at just the size and angle you like and then freeze it into a permanent 2D image.
You can control the front-to-back layering of these objects; group or ungroup them; draw lines or add text; rotate, enlarge, or shrink objects using the same two-finger gestures you’d use on a tablet or phone; and export, email, or post the results. It’s all finger driven and not especially precise, but the creative possibilities are insane.
The Sprout also comes with a stylus (you can use any tablet stylus), so you can scan in a photo and then immediately start tracing over it. Once that’s done, you delete the photo. In about four minutes, you’ve made a line drawing or cartoon of the original.
The stylus and scanner also make this the world’s best digital contract-signing device.
The Sprout comes with a few starter apps from other companies, all created to show what’s possible with two big touchscreens — one horizontal, one vertical. Many are adaptations of existing tablet apps.
The Martha Stewart app is like a grownup version of HP’s own Create app. There’s pianotime, which projects a playable keyboard on your mat and displays the corresponding sheet music on the screen.
An intriguing Crayola app lets your youthful minions finger paint, choosing colors from the crayons on the screen and scribbling them on the mat. Each new color adds another musical instrument to the soundtrack that plays, adding a very effective audio component to a very visual activity.
Most of these apps are very simple, proof-of-concept things — not a reason you’d buy the Sprout.
Here’s another jaw-dropper: real-time video collaboration with other people, anywhere in the world. Each participant needs the Windows app called HP My Room.
At that point, you can talk to each other, face to face, Skype-style. Or you can point the camera down and show the other folks what you’re working on. “No, you should really put the clown nose on the donkey,” someone could say, as she moves the clown nose using her Windows tablet — and you see it move on your mat.
Maybe that kind of real-time, hands-on collaborative design has been possible before. But never this easily, and never this fluidly.
Actually, you could say that about much of what the Sprout does. Maybe these things have been possible; you could probably buy a PC, outfit it with a 3D scanner camera, add a huge tablet for multitouch on the table, buy a flatbed scanner to go with it. But the result would be big and complicated and scattered. It would not be effortless and integrated and fast.
Only a Sprout
I’ve described all of this rather breathlessly, because when it all works, that’s really what you feel: exultation, the sense that you’re witnessing the dawn of something truly game-changing.
The problem is that it doesn’t all work right now.
The hardware is phenomenal. It looks great; it’s thoughtfully designed; and it is very, very sturdy. (When I was clearing my desk to set up the Sprout, I stood the Sprout upright on an ottoman. After a minute, it toppled off, crashing loudly onto the floor two feet below. Guess what? Not a scratch on it. Don’t tell HP.)
But the software. Hmm.
Here, for HP’s roadmap pleasure, is a list of things it needs to fix:
- Apps crash a lot.
- Why are there separate apps for 2D and 3D scanning?
- It’s easy to get navigationally confused. Already, you have to deal with the two superimposed worlds of Windows (the desktop and TileWorld) — and now you’ve got a third “home base” layer, HP’s Sprout Workspace overlay. Multiply that times two touchscreens, and you spend a lot of time wondering how you got here and how to get back.
- Some apps take a very long time to open — like five or six minutes. Sometimes they never open (especially the 3D scanning app, which is labeled “beta”).
- The Create app is too limited. There’s no Eraser tool, so you can’t clean up the bits of random junk that appear on scanned 3D objects. You can’t colorize things. The choice of pen line thicknesses is too small.
- The 3D scanning app can’t create solid, “watertight” 3D objects, since it can’t see the undersides of things. HP is working on a software upgrade for April that will let you scan each side of a thing and stitch the result together. At that point, you’ll have a complete 3D solid that you can print on a 3D printer. And at that point, you know what you’ll have, right? A fast, elegant, 3D photocopying machine. Take a Lego piece, print out a duplicate. Crazy.
- 3D scanning is easily flummoxed by shiny surfaces. It does a nice job with anything with a matte surface (potato, cloth doll, fabric-covered book). But reflective things (mouse, smartphone, ornament, jewelry) fool the camera and create holes, random blobs, or exploded inside-out horror shows.
- You can’t use 3D scanned objects. There’s no way to save them or open them up again later. You can export a flattened 2D image — but thereafter, your 3D scan is gone. (HP says it’s actually saved — into a deeply nested folder on the PC — but there’s no easy way to get back to it.)
- When you close a touch app, it says, “Do you want to save?” even if you just saved it.
- When you’re tracing over a photo, your palm leaves random pen marks.
Who’s it for?
Everyone’s first reaction to this Sprout thing is, “Well, who’s it for?”
I think it’s a goofy question. It’s for anyone who can make use of it! They might be families, kids, Etsy creators, teachers, graphic designers, inventors, marketers, interior designers … or just anyone who gets inspired.
People also react to the price. “$1,900? For that money, I could buy …”
Also a goofy argument. This all-in-one, integrated blender of the physical and digital worlds isn’t like anything else. It’s impossible to compare it with rivals, because there aren’t any.
Clearly, I’m crazy about the potential.
But the software needs work. Needs the bugs worked out, needs the apps to be less basic, needs 3D scanning to create complete solid printable objects. Needs more apps. Needs documentation for the software.
HP, to its credit, acknowledges every single bug and problem I found and emphasizes that they will be fixed and addressed.
The Sprout isn’t a satisfying purchase right now. But if HP is as serious about its future as it seems to be, then the Sprout’s blended reality may indeed become part of your reality in another year or two.