HP Sprout: is this the future of desktop computing?
People have been predicting the death of desktop computers for years, and sales of traditional PCs have taken a significant hit since tablets and smartphones claimed centre stage.
But the humble desktop continues to play an important role in many people's lives.
Now HP is hoping to reinvent the category with the launch of Sprout, a first-of-its-kind computing platform that is designed to reduce the barriers between the digital and physical worlds and merge 2D with 3D – something that HP calls 'blended reality'.
Sprout consists of an all-in-one desktop computer with an HD touchscreen, a flexible capacitive touch mat which serves as a second touchscreen, a scanner, a depth sensor, a hi-resolution camera and a projector.
The system runs both Microsoft Windows 8.1 and HP Workspace – a new operating system developed by HP specifically for Sprout to take advantage of the dual-screen experience. Together these provide a digital environment that is optimised for "creative expression and human interaction", according to HP.
"There is not one component in Sprout that is wholly unique," said Ron Coughlin, senior vice president for HP Personal Systems.
"There have been scanners before, there have been projectors before, there have been computers before, there have been tablet surfaces before; it’s the integration of all those components, brought together by a new software paradigm called Workspace."
Sprout lends itself well to artistic applications and graphic design. For example, users can scan and capture real-world objects in 3D using the Sprout Illuminator projection system, and then manipulate the virtual rendering of those 3D objects with their fingers, using the touch mat.
For example, British fashion designer and creative director Patrick Grant used Sprout to unleash his creativity in a recent art project:
Objects that have previously been scanned are stored on the Workspace desktop and can be flicked from the main touchscreen down onto the touch mat, moved around, resized and edited.
Each object is given its own 'layer' (like in Adobe Photoshop), so different objects can be brought to the front or made to overlap. They can also be layered on top of existing 2D images, or integrated into games or other applications.
The system is also well suited to collaborative work, with users on two different Sprout systems able to view video feeds of one another on the main screen, while simultaneously manipulating content on the touch mat.
Julian ‘Artjaz’, creative director of the Graffiti Kings, said that Sprout provides an ideal platform for collaborating and creating remotely with his graffiti collective:
"Our target is 'makers', and the maker in all of us. It’s a demographic that cuts across age and profession," said Coughlin.
"Sprout was conceived out of our consumer team as a consumer product, but 40-50 per cent of the usage in the US is 'prosumer', so it’s a true crossover device. People are using this both for their personal lives and their professional lives."
Users can add a wireless keyboard for tasks that involve a lot of typing, but they can also bring up a virtual keyboard on the touch mat by simply touching the keyboard icon below the monitor.
They also have the option to switch back to the standard Windows desktop mode for more traditional applications, but HP hopes that more and more applications will become 'Sproutified' over time.
The company is already working with Microsoft, Adobe and Autodesk to develop versions of their apps that are optimised for Sprout's dual-screen environment, and expects that they will be launched in the next few months.
"If you make something touch, it becomes easier and more fluid, it breaks down barriers," said Brad Short HP distinguished technologist and creator of Sprout.
"Developers are moving everything to touch, and what they saw here is a 20-inch touch surface that works on a desktop, so now their professional productivity apps, which are really well-suited for desktops, can get the benefit of touch as well."
HP said that anyone can develop applications for Sprout using the Sprout Software Development Kit. New applications, including a range of creative applications for professionals, families, gamers and beyond, will continue to be added to the Sprout Marketplace regularly.
In the future, HP hopes that Sprout will work in tandem with the company's 3D printers, so users will be able to recreate their 3D virtual designs in the real world.
Designer and author Sophie Conran has already tried this out, using Sprout to breathe new life into her renovation project:
"Think about 'blended reality' as going from physical to digital back to physical. So you could take anything in your house, scan it up, and we could recreate that on a 3D printer," said Coughlin.
"You will see Sprout and Sprout’s capabilities go onto new form factors, go after new segments, and even project into new services, so consider this the beginning of a much more expansive ambition."
Sprout by HP is available to pre-order from the HP Store online and at select retail locations from today.
(It's available later in the year and retails for about €2,000.)