Hand-tracking company Leap Motion is announcing a new platform that will bring its tech to mobile phone-based virtual reality headsets. The Leap Motion Mobile Platform uses two miniature cameras, embedded in a face plate, to detect finger motion that’s integrated into lower-powered VR experiences. It’s supposed to be showing up in commercial headsets next year, although we don’t know which ones.
Leap Motion began as a desktop-mounted, non-VR hand tracker, but for the past few years, developers have been able to mount it to the front of headsets like the Oculus Rift. This lets people use their hands to pick up, toss, or push objects in VR. High-end systems now mostly have their own hand controllers; in fact, the Oculus Touch controller starts shipping tomorrow. But the field of cheaper mobile VR is less settled, and CEO Michael Buckwald thinks that mobile hand-tracking can be the “iPhone moment for VR” — an accessible and intuitive feature that paves the way for mainstream adoption.
In addition to being adapted for less powerful mobile devices, the mobile sensor system has a wider field of view — 180 by 180 degrees — than its older counterpart’s 140 by 120 degrees. It’s built into a headset faceplate at a slightly downward angle, so it’s tilted toward your hands’ natural position below your head. Field of view has been a big issue for past Leap Motion systems; it’s very disorienting to accidentally move your hands out of the sensor’s range and see it lose track of them. It’s still possible for this to happen with the new platform, but in a version of Leap Motion’s physics demo, it felt easier to avoid.
Leap Motion’s standard demo is a graphically non-intensive toybox where you can create and bat around blocks with your hands. But the performance was still excellent, especially with the physics upgrades that the company has added. Two people can now show up in the same space and interact, and the engine has gotten better and better at figuring out when you’re trying to grab an object, although it’s still not as reliable as hitting a hardware button, so doing anything with hand motion takes a certain amount of conscious effort and tolerance for mistakes. It’s more magical than something like Google’s Daydream remote, but less practical if you’re just looking for a basic interface.
It’s also strange to have hand tracking, but not positional tracking, which usually still requires an external camera. Your fingers can reach out with precision, but the headset can’t detect you leaning forward, for example. While it’s not Leap Motion’s purview, headset makers are becoming more and more interested in inside-out tracking, and the same sensor could be used to track hands and full-body motion. The tech could also be used in augmented reality products like HoloLens and Magic Leap. “I think that we’re probably going to be the only ones who can do [sophisticated finger tracking] for at least another four to five years,” claims Buckwald, so it would be easier to license Leap Motion software than reinvent it.
We still, however, don’t know who precisely might use the mobile platform. Leap Motion is integrated into The Void’s super-high-end VR headset, but Buckwald says the company is still waiting on manufacturers to unveil products that have integrated it. “There will be announcements soon from partners,” he says. Given the timing of this particular news, this could potentially mean we’ll get news at CES next month. Still, what’s being announced today is only a reference design, built to work on top of the Samsung Gear VR. That said, Leap Motion will be hosting demos at major VR events this month, so enthusiasts might get a chance to check it out before it shows up in final hardware.