By Alex Allegro

Disclaimer: This is a developer unit of the Leap Motion and not the final stage of the product. Therefore, this review is not on the final hardware that has yet to released.

Few innovations truly change the way we interact with our devices. Touchscreens—once just a fantasy reserved for science fiction—are now more common than ‘dead screens’. Just show any iPad-wielding, 3-year-old kid a screen, and he’ll try swiping it. In a few years from now, eye-tracking technology may have a similar impact on devices. Today, though, Leap hopes to make motion and gesture control the next big thing with the announcement of its first consumer product, the Leap Motion. Promo video:

Due to the “overwhelming response” from developers, who say their app idea will help make the Leap a better product when it launches sometime this year, Leap has decided to send out over 10,000 beta units to developers. Fortunately enough for us, we were able to get our hands on one, and, after a few hours of somewhat extensive testing, I have my verdict on the Leap Motion.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 7.33.50 PMComing in a sleek black box with a hand-pasted sticker only reading “Leap Motion”, it’s no secret Leap took a cue from Apple on how to make a minimalist package. Opening the box reveals the Leap along with a letter from the CEO that briefly explained how valuable the developers are to the Leap’s success. You will find a micro USB-to-USB cable, as well. Plugging the Leap in and seeing your motions visualized on the screen only takes a quick download of Leap’s SDK (now at version 0.7.1) that is available to developers from their online “Dev Portal.”

The software is extremely “thinned out,” as once downloaded, the Leap software doesn’t open an app, but it instead reveals a small icon in the task bar with a pull-down menu. The only way to tell if your Leap Motion device is working is to open the visualizer and test it. The visualizer is a 3D grid that displays your finger movements with a long colorful tail. Each finger has its own color, but the device has trouble recognizing which finger is which, so you’ll usually get a different color for the same finger each time.

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While the Leap didn’t usually have too much trouble sensing one, two, or even three fingers at a time, using four fingers created difficultly with the Leap as it usually didn’t pick up all four at a time. The Leap’s major disappointment, though, comes when you want to use five fingers. As advertised in its promo video, using five fingers with the Leap should not pose a problem. However, in my real-world testing, the Leap almost never was able to recognize five fingers at once. While it’s not such a major problem now, this could cause havoc in the future for developers hoping to utilize all five fingers in one motion in their app.

Another problem I found troubling was the failure to recognize two fingers when next to each other. I hoped that when placing my index finger next to my middle finger, the Leap would recognize the input as two separate fingers, but, unfortunately, the Leap only sees that as one finger. In the future, we may possible see and update that fixes this. In the meantime, though, that input option is not available.

The Leap’s final flaw is its ability to recognize inputs…in general. The Leap claimed there is an 8-cubic feet radius on its ability to pick up inputs. This is true, but it is also very limiting. After moving your hand back more than one foot, the Leap stops picking up inputs completely. The 1-foot “limit” remains on both the left and right side, as well. If I moved my hand two feet to the left side, my movements no longer showed up on the visualizer. The same went for the right side of the device.

The Leap isn’t all negative, though. A few key features that Leap possesses show its strengths against the little competition. The Leap’s “visualizer” software consists of a 3D graph, for instance, with an X- and Y-axis, as well as a Z-axis. This means the Leap recognizes how far or close you are to the actual device. While this could very well just be a gimmick, it could turn out to be very useful and practical with enough developer support and creativity.

The Leap’s other advantage is its size. After seeing the Microsoft Kinect, most thought a gesture-and-motion device for computers would be of a similar or only slightly smaller size. The Leap breaks those presumptions and measures in at about the size of a normal USB stick. With the Leap being so small, we can only imagine how it could only get smaller with the creation of the second and third generation—and eventually built directly into laptops or keyboards/mice. We’re already seeing this happen: Asus’ announcement at CES 2013 said all-new PCs will ship with the tech pre-built-in. Hopefully, though, as the technology expands and improves, we see it come standard into all PCs, and eventually—maybe—with a little glimmering Apple logo over it.

While the Leap looks extremely promising in the promo video online, the developer unit does not have the same consumer appeal. The Leap we are testing is a beta product, but it feels more like something you’d classify as an alpha-stage product. While it is wonderful for what it does, our Leap is in the final casing enclosure, and not just a motherboard, so we’re not getting all the features promised (whether it be the ones found in the video online or written on the site). Of course, though, even if the hardware isn’t final, and it presumably isn’t, the software is still long away from version 1.0. Even then, I have doubts at how much improvement there can really be.

The Leap is the kind of device that can change the game, but the innovation cannot move forward without some major software and hardware tweaks first.