A few weeks ago HP launched an interesting new product called ‘Sprout’, which is a revolutionary PC-like device that uses a completely new user interface. The device uses two touch sensitive panels, one directly in front of the user where the keyboard would be and the other placed at eye level, much like a normal monitor. The Sprout also houses a 3D scanner and a projector in an arm above the monitor. The arm can capture objects placed on the touch sensitive panel beneath it in remarkable detail, and nowhere in sight is there a keyboard or mouse. Not only is this product interesting from a user-interface design point of view, it also places HP back on the map as market innovators, as it opens up the possibilities to the creative industry to use real-world objects in their work, on the fly.
As an input method, the keyboard and mouse have been used in conjunction with Graphical User Interface’s since the ‘Xerox Alto’ back in the mid 70’s, and later, the consumer PC’s and Macs in the early 80’s. In recent years, the keyboard and mouse have been incorporated into touch screens on our smartphones and tablets, with the mouse vanishing completely, replaced with the humble human finger and thumb. It only seems right that the business and home PC market evolves to adopt these technologies to better the user experience.
As we have commented elsewhere here at Yoyo, the introduction of touchscreens that replace analogue buttons are not always the greatest step forward, as they are not without their downsides, but for what they lose out on, they offer massive potential. The same applies to the Sprout, where the loss of the physical keyboard is outweighed by the new possibilities offered by the two touch panels combined with the 3D scanner and projector.
Many of the elements housed within the Sprout can be found in a number of separate products, but this is the first time that the technology has been brought together to form such a unique machine. The most interesting aspect of the Sprout is the 3D scanning camera and projector. This works in a similar way to the Xbox Kinect camera; the video below shows the Sprout in action.
The scanner maps the surface of the object, which provides a 3D model on screen. As can be seen from the concept video, the scanner is also capable of recognising text from books or documents. What is interesting about this technology is how it blurs the lines between the physical and digital environments. We’ve seen examples of this type of tech for a number of years in parallel industries. Take Dulux, where you can match a physical colour of your favourite item, and have a custom made paint blended to that exact colour.
A recent project from MIT helps to demonstrate the power of 3D scanning and projection technology. The research team developed a system that can remotely move an object by using a number of actuators, the inputs being taken from a person moving their hands beneath a 3D scanning camera.
Elsewhere there is evidence that computer interfaces are set to be challenged, for example a recent project called ‘Flow’ was launched this week on the crowdfunding website IndieGogo. Similarly to the Sprout, it too attempts to provide the user with a control interface that challenges the limited functionality of the computer mouse
Flow is also pitched towards the creative sector, and has gained huge popularity by soaring beyond its crowdfunding goal, doubling their financial aim. Clearly these projects suggest big changes ahead for the device interfaces that we regularly interact with.
Of course, impressive as it is to see a device pushing the boundaries of technology and interaction, in some cases, innovative products can be a little off the mark. A few years ago, I came across a toaster that was wifi enabled, which made a burnt icon onto your toast based on weather data. Amazing, but pointless. Sometimes just because something can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. Some would argue that the Sprout verges on ‘gimmicky’, with little real-world application, and current consumer opinion towards smartwatches fall into the same category, as they do not necessarily solve an issue users are crying out for. Whether or not this is something consumers adopt is yet to be seen. At the moment it does feel like the Sprout does not solve a direct human / computer problem, it merely poses another option for the consumer to choose from. It raises the question whether design for the consumer technology industry is lead by ’known knowns’, where a problem is identified, and a design solution found, fuelled by social challenges? Or, whether in some cases, new technology challenges the ‘unknown unknowns’ where products and services are brought to the market and adopted by consumers, even though it does not solve a particular, or obvious problem, for example Facebook, the iPad, or Snapchat.
It must be said however, pioneering products that define new categories have come and gone, only for similar devices to resurface years later. This is evident in the form of numerous tablet PC’s made through the mid to late 90’s, only for the market to explode a decade later after the launch of the iPad in 2010; the same may happen with another Sprout-like interface in a few years time. I dont think that this type of interface is likely to take off in the mainstream right now, but it questions what is possible with the technology that is currently available. At some point there will be an inevitable shift away from what we currently experience, taking us one step closer to the futuristic tech from the film Minority Report.
What do you think? Let us know on Twitter @mattbaldo100