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Leap Motion is building its hand-tracking tech into a lo-fi VR headset

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Let the virtual reality controller wars begin

A high-profile VR headset is about to get its own motion control setup — and no, it's not the Oculus Rift. Today, Leap Motion announced that it would be adding its hand-tracking technology to the OSVR Hacker Development Kit, a piece of open source hardware that will be released this summer. The Leap Motion, originally released as a non-VR gesture interface, has become one of the most common virtual reality controllers. OSVR is a partnership between various VR and gaming companies, but it's better known for its headset, a rougher, cheaper, and more modular alternative to the Oculus Rift development kit.

OSVR will begin taking pre-orders in May, with the headsets shipping in June. Now, though, it will offer an optional Leap Motion faceplate that snaps across the front. This is fundamentally a more sophisticated version of a mount that Leap Motion released last year — one that's been smoothed out and redesigned for a single product. We don't know how much it will cost, but the OSVR headset will sell for $199, and a standalone Leap Motion is currently $79 (plus another $19 for a mount.)

"Hand tracking is just a fundamental part of the VR experience."

OSVR's headset isn't supposed to directly compete with consumer headsets from Sony, Oculus, or Valve. Instead, it's supposed to be a tool for developers and controller companies to build VR experiences that work well together. Leap Motion CEO and co-founder Michael Buckwald says that's part of what attracted him. In terms of picking OSVR, "I think it is so developers have access to a standard form of input," he says. Otherwise, "we're essentially dooming developers to a world of fragmentation" as they pick between everything from Xbox controllers to exotic hardware like the omnidirectional treadmill.

Of course, it's also Leap Motion's way of making sure that hand-tracking is the way to use VR. Not only might this nudge developers towards using its system, it will be on the radar if any major manufacturer decides to use OSVR's kit as a reference design. "If they get excited about a full hardware product with input, they can have all the hardware done, and they just need to talk to us about the software," says Buckwald. Leap Motion has previously partnered with HP, building its technology into laptops and keyboards.

More announcements are apparently forthcoming. "We definitely are working with many other companies in the space. Obviously, we think hand tracking is just a fundamental part of the VR experience," he says, adding that the areas of mobile VR and augmented reality are particularly important. "There are a lot of partnerships in the works." This could mean deals with developers, headset manufacturers, or other controller companies.

OSVR Leap Motion EMBARGO 3/25

One company that probably won't be on the list is Oculus, which acquired a hand-tracking startup last year. Buckwald wouldn't address Oculus specifically, but he implies that Leap Motion could still win against built-in Rift controls. "Hand-tracking is a sufficiently hard and fundamental problem that at the end of the day, everyone is going to work on it, and they should work on it," he says. "But I think that everyone in the space correctly looks to what creates the best user experience at the end of the day, and I think whether they've done it themselves or are working with a partner is secondary."

It's also going to be hard to make it onto relatively locked-down systems like Sony's Project Morpheus or Valve and HTC's Vive. Buckwald says there's no hard timeline, but he thinks there's a market there as well — he imagines a game where players use a controller as a gun in one hand, but throw physical punches with the other. And the larger future, to him, seems bright. "We want people to feel like they are touching something digital and believe it is physical in five years," he says. "I think with VR, we're either there or very, very close to there."