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HP's Sprout Is A Bold Attempt to Reimagine The Desktop PC

The "immersive computer" is bursting at the seams with new ideas, from 3-D scanning to augmented reality.

HP's Brad Short, one of the inventors of Sprout, demos the machine

[Photo: Harry McCracken for Fast Company]

When was the last time you saw a desktop PC that did something truly new?

Sorry, Apple's new Retina-screen iMac doesn't count. It's gorgeous and I want one, but it runs exactly the same software as every other Mac. As for other recent contenders—well, I can't think of any. Other than getting sleeker and faster, desktop computers just haven't changed all that much in this century.

But today, at an event in New York, HP is announcing a new computer called Sprout. (Re/code's Arik Hesseldahl broke the story of its imminent arrival last week.) And boy, does this desktop computer—which draws as much on HP's heritage in imaging as in PCs—do new things.

Some of the HP staffers who created Sprout recently demoed it to me, gave me some hands-on time, and told me about their vision. A few days after seeing and trying the machine for myself, I'm still dazzled by its inventiveness and ambition.

At first blush, Sprout looks like it might be a concept PC—the sort of thing which a company says it's working on in its labs and hopes to release eventually. But HP says that the machine will go on sale on November 9, in a single well-equipped model (with an Intel Core i7 processor) for $1899. That's near the high end of the market for Windows PCs, but not impossibly so: Top-of-the-line configurations of the Envy Recline, HP's poshest touchscreen desktops until now, go for more than $1,500.

How Sprout Works

Though it's built on a foundation that's recognizable as a variation on HP's venerable TouchSmart PC line, the company calls Sprout an "immersive computer," which seems as good a description as any. It has two truly new features: An "Illuminator" which sits atop the 23" display, with a built-in DLP projector and 14-megapixel camera, and a flexible 20-inch Touch Mat which sits where you'd normally position the keyboard and mouse. (The Sprout also comes with both of those conventional input devices.) No PC has ever added those elements before.

HP's Sprout PC, with its illuminator and Touch Mat

Using HP's customized version of Windows 8.1, the projector in the Illuminator beams the Windows interface onto the Touch Mat, creating a horizontal, multi-touch interface. The Illuminator's camera can capture document and objects which you place on the mat. It's desktop computing in its most literal sense: Your desk's top becomes a computing surface.

HP's challenge with this computer isn't proving that it does something unusual and interesting. It's that Sprout does so many unusual and interesting things that it's tough to cover them all. "We created this thing and realized almost after the fact what we'd stumbled upon," says Brad Short, a veteran HP employee with the excellent title of distinguished technologist.

Here are some of the things you can do with Sprout:

You can use it as a dual-touchscreen PC. The 23" LCD behaves as you'd expect a big, upright display to do. The one projected on the mat is easier to work with in touch mode, since it's horizontal and right in front of you. You can run Modern apps on it, and drag stuff between it and the LCD. It's clear that the image is projected—it's not as vivid as an LCD, and your hands cast shadows—but the touch input is as fluid as intuitive as it is on a smartphone or tablet.

You can scan 2-D objects. Such as photos and documents, which Sprout quickly digitizes at 220 dots-per-inch resolution. Once they're in the computer, you can grab them, rotate, and resize them on the Touch Mat.

You can scan 3-D objects. Stick something like a toy on the mat, and the Sprout can capture it in one of two ways: as a flat image which is automatically masked around the item's outline, or as a 3D shape which can then be rotated on the computer. (At the moment, it only captures one side of an object—you can spin it, but not all the way around—but HP says that an update which will permit 360-degree scans is coming within months.)

You can draw and paint. The mat works with any capacitive stylus—the sort which numerous third-party companies sell for use with the iPad—and comes with a high-grade one designed by Adonit.

You can play games. A game can project custom touch-input controls onto the mat, which makes the Sprout feel a little like a ginormous Nintendo 3DS.

You can dabble in augmented reality. HP says that it will be possible to perform feats which involve both an interface projected on the mat and physical objects positioned on the mat. Example: playing chess with real chess pieces on a projected board.

You can communicate with other Sprout users. In a business environment, HP envisions Sprout being used with the company's Virtual Rooms service to enable a form of collaboration which lets people share one projected workspace which shows up on two or more Sprout PC in different locations.

You can print your creations. HP envisions users scanning in items with Sprout, remastering them into new creations, and then printing them out. In some instances, those printouts will be of the conventional sort you'd product on an HP printer. But they could also be physical objects produced on a 3-D printer.

In fact, at its New York product launch, the company is also announcing Multi Jet Fusion, a new technology for 3-D printing which it says is ten times faster than current approaches, with better quality at a lower cost. (It won't arrive until 2016, and when it does, it will be in high-end 3-D printers which target big customers such as service bureaus.)

And that's not all Sprout can do. Short 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.

Even Sprout's creators are still discovering new ways you can use it. Short showed me a trick it can do involving projecting an image onto a mask, and then capturing a 3D image of the mask with the image painted on top. "That's the feature we invented yesterday," he explained.

How Sprout Happened

Sprout originated as a skunkworks project within HP almost five years ago, and the road it's traveled has had a fair share of twists and turns. At one time, the idea was that it would run Web OS, the operating system which HP acquired when it bought Palm in 2010, and then essentially abandoned a little over a year later. At another point, it looked like management had lost interest. "We were put on ice for nine months," says Louis Kim, a VP of product management for HP.

Some of the prototypes HP produced while developing Sprout

Once Sprout bounced back from its near-death experience, HP turned it into a commercial product pretty quickly: It was only about 18 months ago that work began in earnest on the system. HP licensed some of the required technology from others, and created a lot of it in-house. "We have four or five Ph.D.s on the team from the scanning and imaging side," says Kim.

The company had to create its own software environment to support the hardware's capabilities, much as it did for the first TouchSmart computers, which shipped long before Windows supported touch input natively. It received permission from Microsoft to ship a computer which booted up into this modified version of Windows, with apps called Create, Capture, and Collaborate. And it's working with third-party developers to create software which takes advantage of Sprout's features, including apps for coloring and playing the piano, games, and plug-ins for programs such as Microsoft Office and Evernote, with more to come.

Explanation Required

If this machine were dumped into the PC aisle at a typical big-box retailer, nobody would be able to figure it out or understand why it might be worth $1,899—a little as if a modern laptop magically landed on the shelves at a Radio Shack in 1979. HP gets that. "We're building a full ecosystem," says Eric Monsef, a former Apple executive who is now HP's VP of immersive systems. "We have to go about this in a careful and controlled way."

So for now, Sprout is being rolled out at only 80 retail locations: 50 Best Buy stores and 30 Microsoft Stores, plus New York's B&H Photo Video superstore. It will also be sold on HSN.

At stores, Sprout will get its own fancy custom-designed kiosk, where HP employees will show all the things it can do. The company says that customers will also get "concierge-style" tech support by Sprout specialists. It sounds like a well thought-out game plan, but marketing and supporting the system will still be tricky, since there's no single demo which explains Sprout's capabilities, and each person who uses it will likely do so in a different way.

HP's Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer, due in 2016

Who does HP see as its target customers? Folks in the maker movement, for one group: Sprout is about creativity and tinkering and combining existing items into something new, in a way that appeals to makers. Kids, I think, will go gaga over it. It also has business applications, such as design work.

The company 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."

Sprout is about far more than one Windows PC. HP sees the new machine as the first expression of a vision—the company calls it "Blended Reality"—which is practically limitless, and which includes the new computer, the upcoming Multi Jet Fusion 3-D printer, and other products yet to be announced. In various forms, aspects of what Sprout does could be built into laptops and maybe even tablets or phones.

In short, HP, which recently announced plans to split into two companies, has created something which could take years to play out. It'll have to be infinitely more patient than it's been with products such as its Web OS-based Touchpad tablet, which it said it was committed to making a success, and then killed weeks after its release.

Back in the 1980s, Commodore's remarkable Amiga computer did sophisticated video, 3-D animation, and audio at a time when the typical PC was barely capable of displaying even rudimentary color. It was years ahead of its time, but eventually, every PC picked up on features which the Amiga pioneered. If HP is serious about Sprout, it could turn out to be the Amiga of immersive computing: an important machine whose influence on the industry is a lasting legacy. But first, let's see what HP—and its customers—do with Sprout once it hits store shelves next month.

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