HP's Sprout shows the future of how we might interact with computers

HP's Sprout is an 'immersive computing platform' combining a screen, touchpad, projector, scanner and stylus.

With HP's new Sprout, the company has literally gone back to the drawing board as far as what a computer can do. Yes, there's a high-end all-in-one PC at the core of the £1,200 device, announced Wednesday at an event in New York. But HP extends the Sprout's capabilities by adding powerful imaging and touch technology.

In a truly innovative stroke, the Sprout includes a second "display" that's actually a touch-enabled surface called a Touch Mat. Think of it as a virtual sketchpad: Using your finger, you can select an image from the main display, flick it down to the Touch Mat, and manipulate it with your hands – no mouse or keyboard required. It's a daring bid to reinvent how we use computers, built by a company that's trying to reinvent itself as well.

HP calls the Sprout an "immersive computing platform."

"We got this notion of going from thought to experience," says Eric Monsef, HP's vice president of immersive systems. "What kind of experience could I get with two screens and touch?"

Read on too learn more about how users interact with the Sprout platform.

The second screen – on the surface below the 23-inch, 10-point touch display of the PC portion of the Sprout – is the Touch Mat. It's a 20-inch, 20-point touch surface that looks like a huge mousepad. Older folks might liken it to a desk blotter.

The touch technology is embedded beneath the mat's surface. That surface, Eric says, was designed in partnership with 3M to be extremely durable: "It's scratch-resistant and cleanable, even permanent markers."

The other innovation on the Sprout is the Illuminator, a set of imaging technologies built into an arm that extends over the top of the PC display. It incorporates a 14.6-megapixel digital camera, a DLP projector, and Intel's RealSense 3D camera. The RealSense camera lets the Illuminator take scans of objects that look more three-dimensional than a conventionally scanned image.

Brad Short, a distinguished technologist with HP, showed me how all these parts worked together. "To the PC," Brad says, "the Touch Mat is a second monitor with touch." HP even bundles an Adonit Jot Pro stylus to use with the Touch Mat (a standard keyboard and mouse also come with the Sprout).

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Short booted the Sprout, and it went straight to Workspace, an HP interface that overlays the Windows 8.1 interface. (Brad told me that HP had to cajole Microsoft into allowing a direct boot to something other than Windows' own Start screen.)

The Sprout will launch with a few third-party apps. The company has released an SDK, and hopes app developers will find new ways to take advantage of Sprout's capabilities.

For now, we had fun scanning and manipulating images. The Touch Mat is the Sprout's scanning platen, and the Illuminator is the overhead scanner, in a form factor similar to what I saw in 2011 on HP's TopShot LaserJet Pro M275. That product's overhead scanner and scanning surface create 3D-like images that can be printed or saved as image files.

Brad told me that the TopShot product and Sprout were developed in parallel, but they're not closely related: "Same philosophy, different solution and experience," he says.

Having seen both, I can confirm the fundamental differences in approach. The TopShot's overhead camera takes multiple shots to create its 3D-like image. The Sprout, using Intel's RealSense camera, projects different line patterns over the object – it's mesmerising to watch – and reconstructs what HP calls a "3D snapshot" based on the pixels the camera sees.

Short scanned a few small objects and showed me how a home user could take, say, an everyday award certificate and scan it, then scan a real prize ribbon or even a flower, and put all those images together to customise the certificate.

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The scanned images appeared in the Workspace on the PC's display. Brad used a quick, completely intuitive motion that HP (and any human being) calls "flicking" to move images with his finger from the display to the Touch Mat. Once there, he cropped, resized, and moved images to customize the certificate. Workspace will collect images from the Web or imported files, not just scans.

HP also showed me how the Sprout can be used as a collaboration tool. Brad set up an image on his Sprout's Touch Mat, while colleagues set up a free app called MyRoom on an HP Android tablet and an adjacent Sprout demo unit. As Brad manipulated the image and wrote on his Touch Mat, his colleagues could see what he was doing on their devices. They could also see images of each other, as you would in a traditional conferencing app. "We see Sprout as something to bring people together in an immersive way," said Short.

The Sprout does things no other PC does. That could make it a game-changer – or it could trap the Sprout in a niche. But HP's Monsef says the company is committed to developing the Sprout concept over the long haul. "This is just one product. We have a vision," Eric promised.

HP is taking a careful approach to launching the Sprout. It plans to seed a few hundred Sprouts to beta users – "makers, techies, educators" is how Eric described them – so HP can "listen and learn." It's taking preorders for the Sprout's ship date of November 9, and it also plans to set up HP-staffed, in-store Sprout shops in 50 Best Buy stores and 30 Microsoft stores nationwide.

I don't know whether the Sprout will take root (sorry!). But I do know that its invitation to create using our hands merges the virtual and the real in a way that could make computing easier, and perhaps even inspiring.