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Hands on: HP’s Sprout wants to be your 3D creation station

If 3D printing is the future, HP’s Sprout might be the master tool that finally makes them easy enough for everyone to create with.

First we had our hands. Then primitive tools, machinery, keyboards, and mice.

And now we’re back to hands.

On Tuesday, HP unveiled the Sprout, a new device that promises to return us to that most intuitive way of communicating, collaborating and creating. It combines a computer, 3D scanner, projector, and a touch-enabled mat that lets you create and manipulate objects and projects using only your hands.

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At a launch event in New York City, we got to set aside our keyboards and go hands on, quite literally. Here’s what the future of owning 10 fingers looks like.

How does this thing even work?

The Sprout looks both oddly familiar and radically different at the same time.

At the most basic level, it’s just a touchscreen Windows 8.1 all-in-one PC running on a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 processor. But here’s the twist: Perched above the monitor is a downward-facing 3D scanner, which works in concert with a spillproof, touch-enabled mat that’s placed where a mouse and keyboard would typically sit.

The 3D models created will display every detail, right down to the most minute ridges and creases.

You can set an object on the mat to scan it, then see a virtual version of it projected down onto the touch mat as a movable, editable object. Using the mat, you can make changes, add items, remove elements from your projects, and more.

For instance, what if you wanted to insert something that you have in your hands into PowerPoint presentation on the fly? In Powerpoint, you’d put the object of interest on the touch mat, and with the touch of a button in Powerpoint’s toolbar, the overhead scanner will scan that object, and insert it into your presentation.

We scribbled out a sample pie chart and bar graph, placed it on the mat, scanned it, and dropped it into our blank presentation in moments. However, it did come out somewhat light, despite the fact that we used a pen with plenty of ink to scratch out our sample.

We pulled off similar tasks with other apps, like scanning paper butterflies, which showed up flawlessly using HP’s own 3D Snapshot program.

HP Sprout

The Sprout can also scan objects like newspaper clippings, extract the text with Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and then paste those words directly into popular Microsoft apps like PowerPoint or Word. In our experience, the clipping we scanned into the HP by Sprout got slightly mangled up, displaying a few spelling errors, which we would’ve had to correct manually. Overall though, the result was pretty accurate.

HP is working with Microsoft to give all of Redmond’s Office apps the ability to take advantage of the Sprout’s full capabilities.

Capturing 3D models is awesome, but not yet available

Scanning documents and images is nothing new, but of course, the Sprout can also scan and capture 3D objects. The 3D models created will display every detail, right down to the most minute ridges and creases.

Using a special program and the Sprout’s 3D Capture feature, we were able to scan a toy, and then view it in extreme detail on screen. In theory, you could make any changes you want to the toy, and then print out their results via 3D printer. That’s a marvelous way to streamline the process of creating and altering detailed objects from start to finish.

Unfortunately, while we got to play with and preview 3D Capture, it won’t be available with the Sprout until sometime in spring 2015, added as a software update.

Collaboration is where the Sprout really flexes its muscles

Some DIY projects may involve just one creator, but larger projects are bound to involve entire teams of people. The Sprout was designed with this in mind, using its camera and scanner to make remote collaboration a piece of cake.

All the changes appeared in real time on both the screen and touch mat.

By opening and uploading a project to HP’s MyRoom software, we were able to work on and manipulate a party invitation on the touch mat. After inviting collaborators to the “room” we were working in, I gave them the ability to also manipulate the project in real time.

All the changes appeared in real time on both the screen and touch mat, whether we made them, or a remote team member did, just like in Google Docs. And because of the Sprout’s overhead scanner, you can watch how collaborator’s hands move around the piece and alter it.

Imagine a piano teacher trying to instruct a pupil on how to play a Chopin piece from 1,000 miles away. Or a father trying to show his son at college how to fix something. By being able to see what everyone’s hands are doing, you can get a clear sense of how someone is achieving something, not just the final result.

HP Sprout

Eventually, this ability could expand to industry-standard engineering software apps like AutoCAD and CAD, giving engineers the same ability, which HP says is already “in the pipeline.”

Devs need to dive in for the Sprout to spring even further

Like many ambitious platforms, the Sprout needs developers to build worthwhile apps for it if it’s going to get anywhere. To accommodate them, HP is making a Sprout Software Development Kit (SDK) available as of today.

Right now, it already works with DreamWorks Animation Story Producer, GestureWorks Gameplay, HP Create, Collaborate, and Capture, Martha Stewart CraftStudio, and Crayola’s Draw & Sing.

That’s a start, but the Sprout will only grow if future apps pour on the fertilizer. HP promised us that there’s a lot coming for the Sprout on the software front, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments in this area.

Conclusion

The Sprout is an ambitious device that has the power to change the way businesses, educators, governments, and people create, work, and play.

It’s also pretty affordable too, for what it offers: You can pre-order one right now for $1,899. We expected something like this to go for $4,000 or $5,000.

It’s disappointing that the 3D Capture modeling feature isn’t available at the outset, but at least that will be available as a free update sometime this coming spring. If you’re looking to use the Sprout mainly for this reason, you might want to hold out until the update is released to grab one. Plus, by then, more powerful hardware configurations may be available.

Overall, we’re excited by the possibilities that the Sprout by HP holds for the world, and sincerely hope that it isn’t a one-off project that fails to get the proper nurturing, support, and attention that a potential game-changer like this deserves.

The Sprout by HP launches November 9.

Highs

  • Ambitious system could streamline how people create things
  • Makes remote collaboration easy
  • Relatively inexpensive

Lows

  • 3D Capture feature not yet enabled
  • Needs more apps to flourish