True new innovations in the technology space only come around every few years, and even rarer are the innovations that have the power to change our day-to-day interactions with our devices. That’s why I was excited when I first heard about the Leap Motion, a little motion control device that promised to alter how we think of using computers. One year since the initial preview, the device is in the hands of the public, and now it’s up to the people to decide if it can change the way we use our computers. Does it live up to its expectations? Read on to find out:
Upon receiving the $80 little box, the packaging makes a good first impression. Inside the box you’ll find Leap Motion controller itself, and two USB cables (a shorter one and a longer one: usable interchangeably depending on your computer setup.) Both cables are standard grey USB cables, and they interface with the Leap Motion using what appear to be USB 3.0 Micro-B connectors.
Focusing on the hardware, you could almost mistake the Leap Motion for an Apple accessory. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that its COO, Andy Miller, is a former Vice President at Apple.
The device is comprised of an aluminum band that runs around the entire device, capped off with a rubber foot on the bottom (reminiscent of the Apple TV), and a dark, semi-translucent black plastic window on top that covers the sensors.
When the device is plugged in, a series of dim, red lights can be seen through the sensor window, but are barely noticeably off-axis. Additionally, a small green LED indicator on the side of Leap Motion indicates when the device is receiving power.
It’s hard to imagine how small the device actually is without seeing it in context with something else. In fact, the Leap Motion is so small and light (just 3” long and 1.2” wide) that I was afraid the USB cable would cause the box to twist out of place when set down on a flat surface. Fortunately, the rubber foot does a great job of keeping it securely in one spot. Above is an image comparing the Leap’s size to a well-known device (the iPhone 5).
The included card in the Leap Motion box directs you the setup page to activate your device. After downloading the software and installing it, you’re treated to a tutorial and demo of the device’s capability. This will help you get comfortable with learning how to interact with your computer in 3D space. The whole thing does feel somewhat futuristic; it’s really bizarre being able to wave your hands around in the air and control your computer. Especially after being used to a keyboard and mouse all of your life.
The demo- while neat- perhaps shows a little too much. It gives you too close of a look at what the software is actually doing under the surface, and how it detects your hands. It’s almost like seeing behind the curtain in the Wizard Of Oz- it ruins some of the magic of the experience. On one screen in the demo, you’re shown a visual wireframe of your hands as the Leap Motion detects them. Rather than make you more comfortable using the device, this part of the demo actually made me more cautious and careful about how I interacted with it, undoubtably the opposite effect desired. Seeing how easily the device could lose track of one of your fingers or hands by simply moving the wrong way or a little bit too far during use made me more inclined to carefully think out each motion before I did it- a totally unnatural experience. In use- the software seems to compensate pretty well for these sensing errors, but its a hard mindset to shake.
Once the Leap Motion is setup, you’re pretty much on your own. Since there aren’t any real directions or guides other than the demo, you’re left to figure everything out yourself. This can be a little frustrating at times. Launching Airspace, the Leap Motion’s equivalent of Launchpad on the Mac, shows all the apps installed on your system that will work with the device. A few apps are there by default, like Google Earth, which can work with the Leap Motion right out of the box, but to do anything really useful you’ll have to head over to the Airspace Store. To test out the device, I headed over to the store and grabbed every free app currently available on the Mac.
Right now, the Leap Motion is very app dependent. In order to get any functionality out of it, you need to turn to the Airspace Store. Out of the box, I was expecting basic functionality, like the ability to control my Mac, to be up and running. After turning on the device and heading to the desktop, I was surprised to see that nothing appeared to work. It was only after some digging around on the store that I found “Touchless for Mac,” the app required for Desktop integration. Similarly, to get the most of the Leap Motion’s gesture support, you’ll need to install Better Touch Tool, a complex app for setting up and managing app-specific and system wide shortcuts. More on this later.
Using apps with the Leap Motion was a mixed bag. When they work, it can be a lot of fun. When the motion tracking fails, however, it’s downright frustrating.
The Leap Motion’s sensor range extends up from the device and about a foot away from it, providing you with a generous, but limited area for gestures. While the sensor area is plenty large when doing simple tasks, when playing games, I’d often times find myself extending out of the sensor’s range and failing at a particular task in game.
There isn’t a simple solution here. By extending the gesture area, the device would be open to larger, more fluid movements and more advanced gestures. However, the larger the area the device has to watch, the higher chance for error.
The Leap Motion website suggests that the device be kept in front of your keyboard for optimal use, but trying to type with the Leap Motion in front of your keyboard will inevitably lead to accidental input from your hands, and even your head if you sit too near your computer. I found it best to keep the Leap Motion directly behind my keyboard, even though it increased arm strain. Perhaps it would be beneficial to build a universal on/off gesture into the software to reduce spurious input.
Only days after launch, the Airspace store selection is, as expected, very limited. This will improve over time. From my testing, where the Leap Motion really shines is natural, interactive gameplay. Two games- Cut The Rope and Dropchord- really stand out. Cut The Rope is fun because it’s simple. Using your finger to flick around and cut the ropes feels natural. It’s a great example of how the device should be used. Dropchord is fun because it gets your mind in the habit of thinking in 3D space. Using a gesture controlled device like this is far different than using a mouse, or even a touchscreen, and it requires an entirely different state of mind. After using Dropchord, I felt much more comfortable controlling the device.
Other apps, like Molecules and Cyber Science 3D Motion are great demos of the educational potential with the Leap Motion. Being able to interact with molecular structures and bones in 3D is remarkably realistic and intriguing. There’s a big opportunity here for education.
Finally, some things don’t work at all. Google Earth, which I was expecting to be really neat, is far too sensitive to use. Trying to control it was a disaster.
Desktop control integration also left something to be desired. Although the Leap Motion can detect very precise movements, the human finger isn’t precise enough to control your cursor accurately mid-air. The experience is comparable to using a desktop operating system on a touchscreen- it’s not optimized. I am optimistic that this can be fixed, however. Applications like Cut The Rope and NYTimes for Leap Motion invented their own methods of UI control, which, in my opinion, work great for a device like this. Controlling the desktop accurately will require rethinking how we interact with the cursor, not adapting this new paradigm to the old method.
For those that are more ambitious, BetterTouchTool provides a great deal of customization for the Leap Motion. Think of this as the AppleScript of the motion control world- it’s very hacky. Using system-wide gesture support, I was able to get OS X gestures for Mission Control, Launchpad, and Spaces all working with Leap Motion, as well as some other custom gestures in the native Maps application for OS X (launching with Mavericks this fall). Trying to integrate gestures with unoptimized games, however, didn’t seem to work well. The extensive customization available through BetterTouchTool makes using the Leap Motion a lot more useful. That is if you’re willing to put in the time.
There’s no doubt about it- nothing else like the Leap Motion exists on the market in its current state. It’s an incredibly unique product with a ton of potential. That said, right now, the device feels a little bit like a prototype. While the hardware is extraordinarily refined, the software is rough in spots, and the tracking isn’t perfect. There’s also a steep learning curve. A lot of the functionality is only obvious after playing around with the device for a few hours, and novice users might get discouraged initially.
Overall, if you’re an early adopter of technology, a developer, or someone who is curious and wants to explore the future of computing, this is the device for you. While the functionality is currently limited, many of the device’s issues can be fixed with software updates.
For casual users, however, there isn’t a whole lot to see here. The Leap Motion can’t replace your mouse right now. It’s a cool concept, but this is technology that’s going to take years to develop. In the meantime, I’m extremely excited about the future of motion control and I think that devices like the Leap Motion have a promising future ahead of them. You can purchase the Leap Motion here for $80.