One of the biggest problems with today's 3D printer market is that you practically have to be a CAD engineer to make something useful. On Wednesday in New York, Hewlett Packard announced a new breed of PC to give everyday designers and makers a tool to unlock the potential of 3D printing.
It's called Sprout by HP and it's an all-in-one PC that looks similar to an iMac, but sports a small digital projector on the top of the monitor that projects down onto a mat (where the keyboard would normally be) and creates a second screen that is fully touch-enabled and also works with a digital pen. And the projector also serves as a 2D image scanner and a full 3D scanner for digitizing real world objects.
That's the hardware. The software involves what HP refers to as an "apperating system" called Workspace. It sits on top of Windows 8 and the computer boots directly into this HP environment to access a suite of creative tools. HP has Microsoft's support on this, which is a first in terms of a third party being sanctioned to bypass Windows and boot into their own environment.
Inside of Workspace, HP preloads a number of specific tools, but the centerpiece is an app named Create that functions as a digital canvas for mixing 2D scans, 3D scans, digital photos, images from the internet, drawings with the device's digital pen, and more.
HP sees the purpose of Sprout as a bridge between the physical and digital worlds. But, in practical terms it's about making it simpler to create 3D things since 3D printing continues to emerge as one of the tech world's next big trends. On Wednesday, HP also pre-announced its line of 3D printers that will be coming during the second half of 2016. HP said that its Multi Jet Fusion printers will use the company's unique thermal jet technology to deliver printing speeds 10x faster than today's 3D printers.
However, unlike HP's 3D printers that are still years away, Sprout will arrive next month. It will cost $1899, and will be available on November 9, with pre-orders now available on HP.com.
The idea is clearly to get 3D-making tools into the hands of creative people to allow them to start experimenting with techniques for building 3D models. For now, users can take advantage of these tools to print to existing 3D printers from companies such as Makerbot and 3D Systems, but HP claims that its 3D printers will eventually not only be faster but will have higher resolution.
While the HP line of 3D printers have long been teased and anticipated, the ambitiousness of Sprout announcement was a surprise.
The inventor of the Sprout system, Brad Short, a distinguished technologist at HP, said, "People say the desktop is dead. We disagree... It just needs to go way past where it is today."
HP said that it has been working on Sprout for four years -- five years if you include the first year when Short was working on it in the lab -- and has now filed 70 patents that apply specifically to this project. It also has 4 PhDs working on the research associated with the product. The project originated when Short was working on a revolutionary new scanning device and he proposed that the scanner should be part of the PC and not a multifunction printer. It was a revolutionary idea inside HP at the time, but it was the seed for the digital scanner that's now built into Sprout.
The company believes that the market of creative people it's targeting with this product is 135 million in the US. It also believes there are 35-40 million businesses in the US that could also benefit from the product.
With Sprout, HP tested the product with about 400 people whose reality already intersects physical and digital, including kids as young as 3, doctors, engineers, designers, teachers, and even nurses with digital cadavers. Some makers are already using Sprout to capture the creative process.
Nevertheless, there's still work to do. Sprout can do 3D snapshotting now, but full 3D capture won't come until spring 2015. On Wednesday, HP released an SDK for software developers to tap into Sprout with their existing Windows 8 apps or to build new apps on top of Sprout and Workspace.
The company has already worked with specific software developers on Sprout apps and plugins. Crayola has developed a Sprout coloring app for kids and Dreamworks has created a Sprout app to let you use their characters and animation tools to design scenes and create stories; the Dreamworks app shows scenes on the computer screen while putting user controls on the projected canvas, which HP applauded.
Short said that the goal with Sprout is that "you won't think any more of going back and forth" between digital and the real world.
"It's not just a PC with two screens. It's new dual screen immersive form factor," he said.