Leap Motion Controller review: Virtual reality for your hands

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The Good The Leap Motion Controller is a Kinect-like input device for Macs and Windows PCs. It has impressive 3D spatial tracking and already has dozens of compatible apps. It costs under $80.

The Bad It only works with compatible apps; not as intuitive or reliable as using a touch pad, touch screen, or mouse for everyday tasks; your arms will get tired when using it.

The Bottom Line Leap Motion's Kinect-like PC motion controller has its moments of magic, but right now it's more toy than productivity tool.

6.9 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 7
  • Performance 6

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?

Now playing: Watch this: What can you do with a Leap Motion gesture controller?

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.

Playing Dropchord, a music game, using the Leap Motion and a finger on each hand. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Setting up
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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The Airspace Store. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Now playing: Watch this: After delays, Leap Motion gesture controllers start shipping

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.

Spinning heads in Lotus. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET