The last time we checked out the Leap Motion Controller (then known as "The Leap") we referred to it as "a Kinect on steroids." Since then, Leap has attracted an impressive amount of developer support and has announced a full retail launch on May 13th for $79.99 through major channels like Best Buy. We just had a chance to use the final hardware and some of the early third-party apps and games, and frankly, we're still very impressed — but it's still in its infancy.
It's tiny — about half the width of an Altoids tin
The first thing to note on the hardware: this is one of the first consumer devices to use micro USB 3.0. The cord looks proprietary to most people at first blush — especially with Leap's logo on the plug — but it's just early adoption. Co-founder and CTO David Holz assures us, though, that a micro USB 2.0 should work just fine but that the 3.0 will be required later down the line as software is made to harness more of the data Leap is capturing. Overall, the device is tiny. A small silver box about half the width of an Altoids tin with three red LEDs faintly glowing on the black, glass top.
So let's talk about the apps. Holz guided us through a suite of software, ranging from more experiential visualizers (Flocking, pictured) to some of the rougher, more "tech demo" ones we saw last year. Deformation (Holz referred to it as "clay molding") was like revisiting a grade-school pottery class. Start with a simple geometric shape (or in one case a default hand model) and poke / prod / pull the model. The goal is to quickly get a basic model, and while it wasn't pretty for us, in the right hands it can be a useful tool for accelerating early work on a 3D object.
It's clear from the on screen prompt both in this and the handwriting tools that it's picking up very small changes in our gestures — down to 1/10th of a centimeter, according to Holz. That was also clear from a Jenga-inspired game, where players have to carefully remove selected blocks from a full tower. Our frustration didn't come from the controller so much as our own inability to be patient while playing.
But with all that data, the larger and more sweeping gestures feel great — for example, Double Fine's game Dropchord. Two fingers trace around a circle and the line formed by those two points need to "hit" (by moving the line over) certain triggers that pop up within the playing field (they appear somewhat in line with the rhythm of the soundtrack). Where it gets tricky, of course, is adding complexity like moving hazards and certain gestures like tracing a full circle. We were having some adjustment issues in later levels that required more quick finesse, but we're not sure if that's due to a learning curve or early software (Dropchord, like the Leap Motion Controller itself, is still months from launch).
What's needed now is a smart design language to harness that gesture data
The Leap Motion Controller represents a new interface that takes the futurism of Minority Report gestures but limits the amount of actual arm movement to a minimum. It's precise almost to a fault; many of the apps replicate everyday gestures but do so without the tactile resistance that could mitigate some of the "jitters" of holding a hand mid-air. Much like Microsoft's own Kinect, what's needed now is a smart design language to harness data in a way that makes sense to the user. We asked Holz about it, who said it's it's ultimately up to the developers to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Thankfully, there's ample support there. The Leap has attracted a lot of interest, and those developers are looking for ways to make it practical for both the fanciful (gaming) and the mundane (to-do lists). It's an exciting technology that's very soon poised to hitting a wide audience. Is this a "mouse killer"? I'm not convinced, but it's definitely a complementary interface still clearly in its infancy.
Video production by Sam Thonis. Special thanks to Borrow Lenses, who provided us with cameras and lenses.