Leap Motion's gesture-sensing controller is the latest product to promise to change the way that humans interact with technology, a gutsy claim that more and more technological innovators are nonetheless making. The Leap controller purports to allow users "to control their computers with natural hand and finger movements," as advertising for the product says, but it actually goes well beyond simply controlling your computer.
While there are indeed apps that allow you to control your entire computer with finger and hand movements through the Leap controller, the device is actually capable of more than that. It's not simply a replacement for your mouse - it's a gateway into a whole new app ecosystem filled with games, creation suites for art and music, learning tools, and more.
At launch this month the Leap app store - called Airspace - has around 75 applications, and they vary wildly in function as well as quality. Ultimately, though, they're all only as good as the hardware itself.
Unlike other recent gonzo gadgets like the Oculus Rift, funded on Kickstarter, or Kinect, the brainchild of Microsoft, Leap Motion was funded the old fashioned way: by multiple rounds of investing. It was conceived of by company founder David Holz when he began searching for a more intuitive way to create 3D models in virtual space.
Leap Motion announced the device early last year, and it was delayed several times before its release in July. But it's been in the hands of developers for months, giving them ample time to come up with the current set of apps.
The Leap controller is about the size of a cigarette lighter. It connects to Windows and OS X computers via USB 2.0 and uses two cameras and three infrared LEDs to track users' hands and fingers (or other objects, like a pen or stylus) at roughly 290 frames per second.
Leap Motion claims the device is accurate to within 1/100th of a millimeter, and it's capable of tracking all ten fingers at the same time with very little latency. It tracks users' hands within a zone roughly a meter in size above the device itself, detecting simple gestures like pointing and pinching while also allowing for more complex movements using both hands.
Leap Motion says the controller is 200 times more accurate than Kinect, and Asus has already announced plans to integrate the technology directly into computers without the need for a separate device. According to Leap Motion, pre-orders reached hundreds of thousands in 150 countries around the world. That's not too surprising, given the device's promise and its reasonable $79.99 (£51.97, AU$86.29) price tag. Clearly there's a lot riding on the success of the gadget, but how well does it actually work? Let's take a look.
The Leap Motion controller opens the door to a completely new way to interact with technology, but don't expect it to come in a massive box full of bells and whistles like your average game console. The controller's packaging is stark and unassuming, totally without frills - like an iPhone's. In fact, though the Leap Motion controller is sold at Best Buy, the box would look right at home in the Apple Store.
Inside is the lighter-sized controller itself, a "welcome card" and a brief information guide with instructions on getting started, and two USB 2.0 cables (one 2 feet long, the other 5 feet). That's it.
Setting it up is easy whether you're using Windows or OS X. The packing directs you to leapmotion.com/setup, where you can download the software for your operating system. After that it's a typical installation process for your platform, and once the controller is plugged in you're ready to go through a brief orientation app and start using it.
Interface and app store
On the software side the Leap Motion controller experience is centered around Airspace, the device's equivalent of Apple's iTunes. You'll manage your apps and games within Airspace, but you can only buy them through a browser; selecting the "Airspace Store" option in Airspace opens the website in your browser of choice. It's rather clunky, and it's unclear why the store isn't integrated within the Airspace app itself. Even more strange is the fact that you can't navigate through your apps in Airspace using the device itself; you need to do it the old fashioned way, with a mouse.
The "top picks" page also includes the categories, and the categories page also appears to include top picks. It's easy to discover new apps or find specific ones, and it's nice that apps are downloaded into Airspace automatically as soon as you purchase them. But it remains to be seen how well the interface will hold up when there are hundreds or thousands of apps in there instead of dozens.
It's worth noting that updating Airspace, at least on OS X, is something of a pain - after downloading an update you're forced to run the entire installation process over for some reason. Hopefully that will change in the future.
You may have noticed that we've yet to answer the central question here: does the Leap Motion controller actually work as advertised? That's because it varies wildly depending on what you're trying to do. Overall, the device is competent at detecting basic movements. In fact, comparisons to Microsoft's Kinect are surprisingly apt - if you've used Kinect extensively then you'll know about what to expect from the Leap controller in terms of accuracy. It can detect big, obvious gestures more easily than finer ones, but it often has trouble distinguishing between your fingers, thumbs, and hands, and that's when problems arise.
The first app that most users will experience is the Orientation program that's included by default in Airspace. It runs through several abstract demos that show the basic range and response time of the device.
Just like it says, there's very little latency; during these demos the movements of your hands are translated to the screen as ripples and aberrations through fields and swarms of flickering light particles. This app also demonstrates how easily the controller can detect when your hands are and aren't hovering over it.
You'll first notice the device's shortcomings when the Orientation demo begins displaying your hands on the screen. Again, latency is negligible, but the illuminated wireframe fingers displayed on the screen pop in and out of existence seemingly at random.
It seems to have trouble telling where your fingers are unless they're splayed out and more or less still; otherwise, it's a crapshoot. It's telling that the Leap Motion controller's own orientation app isn't quite perfect, and the same problem will pop up over and over again throughout the device's entire suite of applications.