This week, HP announced the Sprout, its bold attempt to reinvent what it means to work on the PC. Forget a mouse and keyboard. You control the Sprout by sliding your hands across an illuminated touchpad, on top of which various interface elements have been projected. This touchpad uses Kinect-like sensory technology to see what your hands are doing, allowing you to use the Sprout’s touchpad like a keyboard, touch screen, or even as a Leap Motion-style 3-D interface.
We were impressed by idea the Sprout: at the very least, it’s a ballsy concept that’s coming from a company mostly known for building more conventional, office-friendly PCs. But can the Sprout really change the future of computer interface?
We reached out to three UI futurists to see what they thought. The consensus? Cautious optimism.
Sean Follmer, MIT Tangible Media Group, co-creator of the InForm
I think what is interesting about the Sprout is that it is the first commercial product to feature an integrated projector-camera system for interaction purposes. There have been products before that focus on gestural interaction using depth cameras (the Leap Motion, the Kinect, and so on), but the Sprout shows something that we and others have been working towards for years: a radical new way of interacting, not with a touch screen, but with tangible objects in the physical world.
Imagine, for example, building a Lego set where the computer could highlight which bricks need to go where, or playing a game with someone over the internet and seeing their hand over the game board. This type of projected augmented reality has been long in development in the research world as far back as 1991 but the Sprout is the first commercial hardware implementation that could support it.
Unfortunately, what was shown in the demo videos falls short of that. The Sprout only touches on multi-screen interaction. Previous products, such as the Toshiba Libretto, have already explored this. To me, the success of the Sprout depends on how well it can open up new avenues for how we interact more naturally with digital information, not only through touch but through physical objects, but the Sprout’s abilities in this regard seem limited by its current software. Where it seems to shine, though, is a more holistic understanding of interaction with multiple screens and modalities – touch, gesture and pen input.
R. Clayton Miller, UI Designer, Creator of 10/GUI
To me, Sprout looks like several good experiments in interaction design that lack focus as a product. I’ve long been a proponent of expressive desktop touch surfaces as a post-mouse solution, and I think Sprout’s form factor is great. A touchscreen you can rest your hands on combined with an upright one could work as a next-gen product on its own (especially if it stuck with LCD for both displays).
The cameras and projector are where I think Sprout starts to overextend itself. I can’t see it having the image quality to replace either a scanner or a DSLR for most professionals, and the novelty of scanning in objects will likely wear off for casual users. Professionals aren’t going to rely on the color accuracy of a projected image, which makes the bottom screen unsuitable for its core purpose of direct manipulation. A lot of gestures it demonstrates involve touching the vertical screen, too, which is going to lead to fatigue with regular use.
What’s most exciting to me about Sprout is that HP is taking a high-profile chance on a promising two-screen form factor. I hope it leads to more experiments to find the best ways to utilize the concepts involved.
Phillip Schoessler, MIT Tangible Media Group, Co-Creator Of THAW
I think it’s refreshing to see a product like Sprout that takes a more radical step towards a future where the physical and digital world will be more intertwined.
When HP’s 3-D printer rolls out, it should be possible to physically replicate almost any object just by letting the Sprout scan it. I can also imagine seeing applications that utilize the camera and touchpad for object recognition, and to offer more contextual UI interactions. Using the Sprout, physical objects placed on the Illuminator could be augmented with additional information by the projector overhead, or even be used as physical tools for digital applications, like was done with the LuminousRoom project:
Nothing the Sprout is doing is really new, though. If you look at the history human computer interaction research, most of Sprout’s concepts have already been explored. For example, the , or the Luminar, which showed how a projector-camera system can be used for context-aware interactions.
I think HP did a great job in combining known concepts into a well-rounded product and I personally hope to see ideas that until now only existed as research become reality.