How 3D Printing May Change the Way We Use Computers

HP made headlines with its unveiling of two new products — a high-end all-in-one PC and an industrial 3D printer — with which it hopes to target a newly visible and increasingly innovative and influential demographic: makers and creatives.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Sprout, HP’s newly announced computer, is intended for people who like to make things in the real world. The computer features two displays. One is a a 23-inch 1920×1080-pixel touch display, and the other is a touch mat that measures 20 inches diagonally and can handle up to 20 points of input at the same time. The touch mat lays flat on a desk — in about the same place where a user would normally put a keyboard. It has touch technology embedded beneath its surface, and was designed to be extremely durable.

Sprout also features a depth sensor, a three-camera system — comprised of a 14.6 megapixel camera, the Intel RealSense 3D camera, and an RGB camera — that can scan 3D and 2D objects placed on the touch mat, and an overhead DLP (digital light processing) projector for 3D scanning and imaging, and projecting images onto the touch mat. HP named the imaging system, which is packed in to an arm that extends over the top display, the “Illuminator.” Sprout can project images onto the touch mat, or capture an 3D object placed on the mat. Users can also “flick” an image from the main display onto the touch mat, and manipulate an image on either screen.

HP says that the Sprout will enable users to “take items from the physical world and seamlessly merge them into the digital workspace.” Sprout will also ship with a wireless keyboard and mouse, and will be built with a quad-core Intel i7 Processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 745A graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage.

Sprout will launch with a handful of third-party apps built specifically for the high-end all-in-one PC, and as the Journal reports, some will enable users in multiple locations to collaborate on projects in real time. Apps made for the system will be available in a Sprout Marketplace app store, and HP is also releasing an SDK to enable app developers to create software for Sprout.  The computer will be available for pre-order on HP’s website, and will be available in stores on November 9 at a suggested price of $1,899.

Quentin Hardy reported for the New York Times that Ron Coughlin, HP’s senior vice president of the consumer personal computer business, said that Sprout is organized “in a visual way, around containers. The market is creators.” Sprout is part of HP’s new “Blended Reality ecosystem,” which it says is designed to “break down the barriers between the digital and physical worlds.” That ecosystem also includes HP’s first 3D printer, called the HP Multi Jet Fusion, which the company introduced along with Sprout. As Mashable reports, the HP Multi Jet Fusion prints on multiple axes simultaneously to speed up the 3D printing process by as much as a factor of ten.

It uses a bar with 30 nozzles to print objects in layers, applying 350 million drops per second, with 21 micron precision. The new printer, intended for businesses, can handle color, improve the strength of the printed item, and wastes less material and uses lower-cost parts to reduce the cost of the 3D printing process.

HP also says that the 3D printer will be cheaper than the products currently on the market. HP’s printer is expected to be in testing and early production next year, and available to purchase in 2016. While HP says that it will sell the printer to industrial companies — and measure the output of the printer in tons of material — the printer is aimed at making 3D printing more ubiquitous in the lives of average people. HP plans to sell the printer to the kinds of services that enable users to upload a design and buy the 3D printed object. The Multi Jet Fusion will lead to faster turnaround and better quality for these services.

Carl Bass, chief executive of Autodesk, told the New York Times that for 3D printers, “this is like 1982 for personal computers, things are just getting started. I’m good with all the stuff that moves the field forward.” Bass said that he was recently told that there are 275 3D printing companies in the world, and “All of us benefit when a big company comes into the business.” Those benefits also extend to consumers, who are seeing 3D printing gradually become more accessible.

HP’s new 3D printer and Sprout are both about making it easier to imagine, design, and create 3D objects. While the Multi Jet Fusion will be an expensive piece of equipment intended for businesses, Sprout is a high-end but still attainable machine that could enable creative people to experiment with the process of building 3D models, without the need for the CAD skills that are typically necessary to design a 3D model. Users will be able to print the models that they create as actual objects with existing printers, like those by Makerbot or 3D Systems.

As ZDNet reports, HP estimates that the market of creative people whom it’s targeting with Sprout is 135 million in the U.S. — perhaps simply estimating the number of Americans who might consider themselves “creative” enough to take part in the growing maker movement. It also believes there are between 35 and 40 million American businesses that could benefit from the capabilities that Sprout offers.

HP tested the product with 400 people whose everyday work already deals with the intersection of physical and digital — children, doctors, engineers, designers, teachers, and even nurses, and Sprout is reportedly the most user-tested product in HP’s history.

Hardy wrote for the New York Times that HP plans to make 3D printing “an everyday thing” with a 3D printer that is ten times faster than most other 3D printers, while still highly precise. The printer will be able to print a thousand two-inch gears in three hours, while the best commercial printer currently available will need 85 hours to complete the task.

So while the Multi Jet Fusion will be a pricey piece of HP’s Blended Reality ecosystem, it together with Sprout play into the ongoing maker movement, which is putting the tools to innovate and create new businesses within reach for more people than ever before.

As USA Today reported in August, the “maker” movement is touted as the next industrial revolution by an enthusiastic community of hackers, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs. “Maker movement” is a broad term, which appropriately encompasses all the independent individuals who, in the DIY spirit, combine the spirit of invention with powerful tools like open-source learning, design resources, and prototyping or manufacturing technology like 3D printers.

So-called “makerspaces” built by and for these makers are appearing at community centers and libraries to fulfill demand for affordable access to shared workspaces and industrial tools. 3D printers are one of the mainstays of these spaces, which USA Today characterizes as a cross between a business incubator and a manufacturing plant.

Catalyzed by tech advances that have caused a precipitous drop in the amount of time and even the amount of technical skill and training that it takes to produce a prototype or even a useful object, makerspaces across the country are fostering entrepreneurs, with several notable success stories. The Square credit card reader, the Pebble smartwatch, the Coin credit card, and even the MakerBot 3D printer were created in makerspaces.

To the tech community that’s risen around this maker movement, the innovations that enable cheap manufacturing, the culture of creative entrepreneurship, and the economics of the entire movement have coincided to effectively democratize innovation. Shared, collaborative workspaces cultivate new ideas and new business models, and local libraries aren’t the only ones building makerspaces. Major corporations, universities, and government agencies have opened facilities for product developers and entrepreneurs and learning from the motivation and creativity of the makers that congregate in coworking spaces.

So how will 3D printing affect the way we use computers? 3D scanning and 3D printing are so young when it comes to mainstream consumer use that standard practices or a common set of tools has yet to emerge, but it’s hard to imagine that tools like Sprout — if it achieves any kind of wide adoption — won’t change the accessibility of 3D imaging and printing, or spark more public interest in their potential. Once it launches and users are able to test it, then its capabilities and how intuitive it really is will likely determine its reception from the tech community and general consumers, and it will be easier to gauge if Sprout is valuable as a tool, rather than as just a novelty. But for now, it’s safe to say that Sprout will at least get people thinking about what the computers of the future will be able to do, beyond simple web browsing and word processing.

HP’s vice president of immersive systems, Eric Monsef, tells USA Today that HP regards Sprout not as a “PC that can do fancy tricks,” but as the beginning of an entirely new product category. 3D printing is gradually going mainstream, and HP’s vision seems to be a computer that will be a natural fit for designers, makers, and other creatives. In the not-so-distant future, these are the people who will be an increasingly powerful force behind innovation, so if nothing else, Sprout seems like an attempt to connect with this community and all of the individuals, entrepreneurs, and startups within it.

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