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Computers already have keyboards. They have mice and touch pads. They even have touch screens. But is there room for a totally new interface?
Leap Motion dreams of a future where we’ll use fluid gestures and finger motions in a true 3D input space, taking computing beyond our current type, click, and touch limitations. It’s a dream that others share: Microsoft and the Kinect, for instance. But in the case of the Leap Motion Controller, Leap Motion's first product, the dream isn’t room-filling; instead, it’s intimate, residing in the space that fits on your desk.
CNET first saw the tiny little USB-connectable Leap Motion device last year. But it's no longer theoretical; it exists for you to buy right now -- a real consumer product, available for a mere $80. Its potential sounds impressive, but for what? Can it really transform your PC? Are consumers -- and app developers -- ready for a "Minority Report"-style user interface?
What is this thing, anyway?
The Leap Motion Controller is a motion-sensor for your computer -- think of it as a tiny Kinect that works with a Windows PC or Mac. The Controller tracks your hands -- all 10 fingers, plus joints -- in 3D space, with far more precision than you’d expect: up to 1/100th of a millimeter accuracy, according to Leap Motion.
Put it down in front of your computer, in front of the keyboard or your laptop, and the space above it becomes a zone where you can use your hands to control stuff on your computer. Its sensory field, however, is limited to a narrow dome that extends above and around the tiny unit -- 2 feet above the controller, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet deep -- 8 cubic feet. It effectively covers a good chunk of your desktop space between you and your computer screen.
The device itself is a tiny black rectangular box -- smaller than a mouse -- rimmed in aluminum with a rubberized base. Under its smooth, glossy top are three infrared sensors and two cameras that do all the tracking. It has a little connector port for its included USB cable, and a small green LED light on the front that lights up when it’s plugged in.
For people wondering what you can "do" with the Leap Motion Controller, the answer so far is: a lot, but not much that's useful. The Controller is compatible with Windows PCs and Macs, but it mostly works with software from the Airspace Store, an app store that's specifically designed for the unit. I tried the Controller on a MacBook Air, on an HP Elitebook Revolve, and on a bigger-screen Dell XPS 18. I played with about a dozen or so apps, and tried navigating Windows 8 and OS X with it.
Familiar apps like Google Maps and games like Cut the Rope have been Leap-enabled, and there were a host of other games and exploratory educational apps in the Airspace Store that were fun to noodle around with -- some even delivered a magic moment or two. But make no mistake: the Leap Motion Controller is a hobby accessory. No matter how cool it could be, or occasionally is, it won’t replace your touch pad, mouse, keyboard, and touch screen. It’s an experience more than an essential tool. For the most part, though, it works. And if the right apps were made available for it, it could get interesting.
The Leap Motion is packed up in a white box with the elegance of a well-polished Apple product, with a simple set of instructions: plug it into your computer, and download installation software from a Web site listed on a little card.
The Leap Motion Controller works across Macs and Windows: Windows 7 and 8, and Mac OS X 10.7 or 10.8. It worked well on a variety of current computers I tested it on.
An included “Orientation” tutorial you go through when you install the device shows you that virtual space and how your fingers are tracked. Immediately, you can see that it can sense subtle movements like a little finger waggle or rapid air-writing.
Once you’re done with the tutorial, you’re sent to Airspace Home, Leap Motion’s app launcher and gateway to the Airspace Store, where Leap Motion-compatible apps are sold. You need to set up an Airspace account; while the Leap Motion Controller could run apps outside the Airspace Store ecosystem (Google Earth 7.1 is one of them), the store’s a cleanly laid-out way to discover what apps are out there already, and a good chunk of them are free.
Software: The Airspace Store
Many of these apps -- 75 or so now, and more promised to be coming soon -- are games, or experimental art and music experiences. A few are educational. All require you to be in that app. Leave the app, and the Controller doesn’t work.
You can’t just plug in and use the Leap Motion on your Mac or Windows PC like you would a mouse or touch pad unless you download and install a particular app called Touchless, which turns the Leap Motion into a sort of air mouse with multifinger gestures. I found it hard to use easily, but better on Windows 8’s tiles than on a Mac.
If you like tripped-out experimental art, Leap Motion has you covered. In fact, it seems like many of the current apps amount to arty experiences, like Lotus, which has you spinning weird heads and manipulating glowing cubes, or Flocking, which turns your fingers into lights to attract schools of fish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.