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A View from Sam Petulla

HP’s Attempt to Blend Physical and Digital Work

A weird device uses 3-D sensors and a projector to reimagine how computers and humans interface with the physical world.

  • October 30, 2014

HP did something strange in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City yesterday. It began by splashing blue strobe lights and repeating the word “awesome” enough times to suggest that it might have doubts about the merit of what it planned to unveil. It then introduced the audience to a genuinely innovative product that will undoubtedly spark imitators, but almost certainly not capture the large consumer base that the company hopes.

The Sprout workstation combines touch input with image sensors to offer a new way to work with physical and digital objects.

The product, called Sprout, is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of usually separate computing and imaging technologies assembled into a single workstation. It combines a touch screen, camera, infrared depth sensors, projector, touch-sensitive whiteboard, and a conventional printer and scanner. You’re encouraged to hook it up to a 3-D printer, like the one HP launched alongside the Sprout.

All that is supposed to make Sprout into a powerful new tool for designers and other creatives. You might use the device to scan, say, a Buddha statuette in 3-D, and then use a stylus to modify the digital scan once it is projected onto the workstation’s touch-sensitive surface. After you’d made your change, you could print the new design out in 3-D.

Sprout shows signs of HP’s history of making PCs and printers, with matte grey casing and the bulbous contours of a Ford Taurus. But it is clearly the product of some very clever engineering and an ambitious product strategy. It is so unlike what might be expected from HP that it may not receive the attention it deserves. If it works as advertised, Sprout offers a new way to bridge the gap between working on digital and physical designs and objects.

While computer processers and memory have advanced over the decades, we have continued to interface with them via monitor, keyboard, and mouse. More recently, tools for making things in the physical world have changed a lot, too, with the advent of maker spaces and affordable, computer-controlled lathes, mills, and 3-D printers.

But in neither of these cases do you have the opportunity to take control of the world of physical outputs and software-based design and computing together.  Sprout is a clunky device to gaze upon, but it’s dreaming in a big way about the very nature of work.

You can do things with Sprout that had previously only had been possible by piecing together at least a half-dozen different devices. Your digital creations can move back and forth between the real world, fairly seamlessly, as you refine your ideas. Sprout might never gain anything close to mass adoption, but kudos to HP for bringing out some of the spirit that circulated in the suburban garage where the company started.

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