Leap Motion Controller review: Virtual reality for your hands

Educational apps I used mostly seem to use your hands to spin or manipulate; Molecules has you turning molecule models, and Exoplanet spins through the solar system. Both could have been just as good with a touch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

My favorite apps were games: Cut the Rope works well, especially if you don’t have a touch-screen PC. Boom Ball, a 3D break-the-blocks game, turns your finger into a paddle, and shows off the Leap Motion’s delicate accuracy; a small curl of my finger angled the paddle for trick shots. Dropchord, by Doublefine, has you twisting your fingers to move a line around and avoid enemies to a thumping musical beat.

Virtual flight-style apps show off the Leap Motion’s accuracy. Google Earth isn’t part of the Airspace Store, but it’s also Leap Motion-enabled; tilting and shifting your hand to zoom and zip in and out around the globe really works and is extremely cool.

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How it feels as your only PC interface: Disorienting
I really wanted plug in the Leap Motion Controller and never touch my touch pad again. However, for all its claims of 1/100th of a millimeter accuracy, I found using it to be sometimes pretty frustrating.

It can track your hands in any lighting or even in the dark. Actually, it tracks better in the dark. Bright lights can sometimes throw off its sensors and cause things to get a little jumpy, much like I’ve experienced on the Kinect.

Unlike the Kinect, the Leap Motion senses subtle movements, and at a much more intimate distance and scale. But, while it tracks all 10 fingers at once, it’ll only do so if the app supports it. Some apps, like Corel Paint, are designed for one-finger use only.

I couldn’t tell whether the Leap Motion’s occasional interactivity hiccups were my fault, the software’s fault, or the hardware’s fault. But they happened: occasional skipping of the virtual cursor, gestures that didn’t always register, virtual finger-clicks I tried to pull off by pressing forward that didn’t open apps.

When your hand goes off the Leap Motion’s virtual space, the signal drops off. You get no warning. That could mean, in a game, suddenly realizing you’re no longer controlling the paddle. With a painting, it could mean having to stop mid-brushstroke.

Giving Touchless a whirl on Windows 8. You can use it, but it's not easy. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can convert the Leap Motion’s controls into a touch pad/mouse alternative on Windows and OS X via an app called Touchless, complete with multifinger gesture equivalents. This is the Leap Motion’s only “outside-the-app” tool, freeing you to attempt to work at your PC with your bare hands. Good luck with that. Mouse movements get controlled by your finger in space, as if your hand was a magic wand; it’s cute, but the real trouble comes when “clicking,” which you do by jabbing your finger forward into a click zone of sorts. Punching my finger into imaginary space doesn’t convert well on a 2D Windows 8 app or an OS X screen.

The Leap Motion doesn’t have a universal gestural language, like the MacBook trackpad’s swipe gestures, or the iPhone/iPad’s multifinger taps and pinch-to-zooms, or Windows 8’s off-edge swipes, or the Kinect’s wave-your-hand-to-activate and “Kinect, do this” voice recognition. The creators of the Leap Motion Controller say they didn’t want to hamper app development creativity. That’s noble, but it means every app often has its own gestural vocabulary. I found myself deep in rhythm games or virtual fish tanks or full-scale finger painting and suddenly wondering how to exit, or save my work without ruining everything. What if you need to send an e-mail or take a Skype call? There's no exit-the-matrix shorthand like the Kinect’s hold-your-hand-to-the-side way of stopping a game: you can’t cry “Uncle.”

That could be easily fixed in a software update, or with new apps, but right now it makes the Leap Motion feel more like a kaleidoscope of experimental apps using a single controller than a unified new control-your-PC technology.

You need to use the Leap Motion Controller at a desk, preferably, as the instructions tell you, in front of your keyboard or your laptop’s edge. It’s small enough to go anywhere with you, but you need a stable surface -- unlike, for instance, if it were embedded in a laptop’s keyboard deck.

My arms need a break. Sarah Tew/CNET

Using it over a half hour or so can feel like an arm workout -- and I don’t think that’s just because I’m not athletic. I had to hold my hand a good 6 inches to a foot in the air, continually, for most apps, and I started feeling fatigue after 10 minutes. Continually holding your hands up just isn’t desk-friendly behavior. Standing up, it felt better; maybe the Leap Motion is the killer Standing Desk accessory.

I liked the Leap Motion better as a little motion-control game accessory than as a productivity tool. There’s no way I’d ever ditch my mouse or touch pad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Intriguing, unessential, but promising
I remember what it felt like to try an iPhone for the first time. Other devices had touch interfaces, but the capacitive multifinger smoothness and intuitive gestures on the iPhone transformed the phone experience. It made the smartphone easier to use.

Right now, the Leap Motion Controller doesn’t have that impact. As an input device for your PC, it feels like a solution to a problem nobody had. But it gets points for being something that really works, and for launching with a enough of an app catalog to show off its chops.

The Leap Motion Controller will need more apps that help it do everything you’d want it to. I was torn between appreciation for its success in turning Kinect-like technology into a more usable and fine-tuned desktop tool, and a gut feeling that this is, right now, a novelty.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But an argument could be made that the Controller isn't intended to replace your mouse or touch pad. Rather, it's a proof of concept for the Leap Motion technology. This first iteration of the product isn't wireless, and it only works with Macs and Windows PCs. But imagine a Leap Motion beside you on a sofa, as part of a remote. Controlling your TV, or set-top box, with a little gadget like this could be wonderful. Likewise, for someone with disabilities, the Leap Motion could transform his or her computing experience.

Who knows: with the advent of the right apps -- or maybe even a new OS that's built from the ground up to support interface devices like Oculus headsets and Leap Motion Controllers -- interacting with your computer, tablet, or TV may evolve to a three-dimensional virtuality that's only been the realm of science fiction.

That future could happen: maybe in some other product form, or with a partnership. Leap Motion has already made deals with Asus and HP to pack the Leap Motion Controller in upcoming PCs, and to be embedded into some HP products. I’ll be watching with interest to see what apps and successor products emerge, and I’ll be eager to play with them.

In the meantime, don't buy the Leap Motion Controller with the expectation that it will replace your mouse, touch pad, or touch screen for day-to-day computing. For now, it's for would-be futurists with a penchant for experimentation who are looking for a fun (if limited) glimpse of the motion-controlled future.

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    Leap Motion Controller

    Part Number: CNETLMCONTROLLER Released: 23 Jul 2013
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    • Regional specs shown for US. UK specs are unavailable.

    • Release date 23 Jul 2013
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