The future is gesture controls, they would have us believe. You should all be touching your computer screens, waving your arms around in front of your Xbox, and waggling your way to virtual sports victory. But you’re just not, apparently. What’s wrong with you? Or perhaps, what’s wrong with the technology? You don’t want to buy an entirely new PC just to use Windows 8 as it was designed to be used? A general lack of precision and badly implemented software with no killer apps? Leap Motion is hoping to change that: to give us both precise desktop hardware that can retrofit any machine into a motion sensing beast, and an app store chock full of fantastic killer apps. Does it deliver? We find out. And we’ll be giving away a Leap Motion to one lucky reader!
Personally, I enjoy a good session of Dance Central. I’m a pathetic dancer, but even I can rack up a good score thanks to the vague motion sensing that seems to be telling me “whatever, that’ll do, I don’t really care if you’re doing it right or not, frankly”. It saddens me a little when Microsoft talks about how much better the next generation of Kinect will be – I don’t want it to read my motions any more precisely, or I have the sneaking suspicion the Dance Central will quickly wise up to my middle-aged balding white guy dancing ability, or lack thereof. But I digress. The point is, the current generation of motion sensors are relatively imprecise, and this limits their use to dance and sports games – the promised tech of Minority Report seems an awfully long way off.
The $80 Leap Motion is a diminutively small device, far smaller than I was expecting. Is it really possible to pack so much precision motion sensing technology into a device that tiny, or have some sacrifices been made?
The design is clearly influenced by Apple, with a sleek black glass top and brushed aluminium curved bezel; a single green LED inset on the front. It looks right at home next to Macbook Air, except for the cabling.
Supplied with two cables, one short and one long, they appear to be USB 3.0 connectors one end, but the documentation implies they only run at USB 2.0 speeds – apparently the creators were unable to source USB 3.0 cables that were flexible enough. The device itself will perform better on USB 3.0: approximately 290 frames per second as opposed to 215 maximum – but whether that is a noticeable difference to the end user is debatable. Under my lighting conditions, it rarely went above 30 fps anyway.
The Leap Motion works with both Windows and Mac, and is very much like a mini-Kinect; it uses 3 infra-red LEDs to blast out a hemisphere of IR light, and two cameras to read the exact 3D position of anything which they hit in the process. Occlusion is an inevitable issue with this technology – if one hand is placed above another, it can only “see” the nearest.
Whilst the Kinect has a low level of detail and requires a fairly large distance from the sensor for best performance, the Leap Motion does entirely the opposite – it gives a high level of detail at a close range of up to about 1 metre. The Leap Motion is designed to sit just in front of your screen, pointing upward, reading gestures performed above it.
Perhaps the closest direct competitor to the Leap Motion is the Gyration Air Mouse line, a series of enhanced mice input devices with gyration sensors that allow for gestures to be traced in the air. The Elite model is $79.99, the same price as the Leap Motion.
After downloading the setup file and a quick installation process, the Leap Motion launches you into a beautiful and intuitive on-boarding process. Moving your hands into the field of vision of the device initiates the demo, pulling them away progresses to the next. The first is no more than eye candy – firework sparklers as you wave around. The second shows you what the Leap Motion is interpreting about your fingers, hand and wrist in 3D space – you can see exactly how accurate its understanding is. The third invites you to just paint using a finger. It’s a marvellously well designed set of demos that leaves you impressed. For most, the joyous wonder stops right there.
Though not obvious, there are some interesting tools and settings to be found in the driver application, like this diagnostic visualizer. A calibration tool is also provided, but is absolutely baffling. It involves holding the device 10 cm from a reflective surface and attempting to paint the screen. Once the utility determines something is good enough, it tells you it’s done.
The device is not without technical difficulties. A lot of users report almost constantly running into “robust mode”, which occurs when there’s a lot of IR interference or the lighting conditions generally aren’t suitable. It appears that under any kind of office or halogen lighting, low lighting conditions, or even the slightest hint of direct sunlight, robust mode kicks in. In fact, getting the right lighting conditions at all seems to be somewhat of a black art. This is shame, because recognition drops significantly during this fallback mode; recognised movements are often erratic.
Under ideal conditions, you can choose the type of tracking you want from the settings screen. Entering precision mode gives a more accurate, but slower recognition time. By default, balance mode is used.
Airspace is the central hub for all things Leap Motion.
It’s an app launcher, and shortcut to the web-based app store. The store is well designed and easy to navigate. There’s a variety of free and paid apps on offer, for both Windows and Mac – some cross-platform.
To be brutally honest, every game I’ve tried so far has been a gimmick at best; at worst, a frustration. Even the relatively straight forward BoomBall is a breakout clone that works accurately enough, but can’t hold the player’s attention for long.(Rock Paper Scissors / Janken) misread my moves and threw rock most of the time.
Steve Jobs was right when he said that touch is not the way people want to interact with computers – tablets, absolutely, but desktop computers and laptops – just, no. Holding your arm up and keeping there as you gesticulate wildly to control a ball is plain tiring. This just isn’t fun for more than a minute. Cut The Rope was perhaps the only exception to the rule; I could see children playing on that for hours, but then the game was always fun and the Leap Motion adds nothing in particular over and above an iPad, for example – integration with the Leap Motion consists of a single motion used to cut the ropes.
There is however, one app which I have now kept running all the time – BetterTouchTool, which we’ve talked about before. BetterTouchTool is an incredibly powerful (and free) custom gesture management and shortcut program. It works with trackpads, Apple remotes – anything, really. And now, it works with the Leap too. The problem I’ve had with built-in gestures on an Apple trackpad is that I trigger them all too often by accident; scrolling left might pull up the notification bar, for instance. By moving some of these common gestures onto my Leap Motion, I reduce the frustration with the trackpad.
That, for me, is a killer app. Now, if I want to view my desktop, I can wave 3 fingers downwards, as long as my hand is somewhere in the vicinity of the front of the monitor. It’s an easy gesture to perform, and an easy one to recognise for the Leap Motion. In short, it’s a perfect compliment. GameWave is a similar app gaining popularity for adding gesture controls to games.
The success of the Leap Motion lies not in trying to replace existing input methods with some radical new “gesture-based computing” (don’t you hate that phrase?), but with augmenting existing devices. Whether this can justify an $80 price tag is a difficult call to make though – for me, it just isn’t worth it.
Should you buy the Leap Motion?
The technology inside the Leap Motion is certainly nothing new; but the form factor, precision readings, the app store, the seamless installation procedure and impressive on-boarding process – this is what makes the Leap Motion what it is. The orientation app shows how accurate it can be – when implemented well – but it seems to me that what was demonstrated there and what’s actually available as real software reveals a huge discrepancy. Like any new device, it is ultimately the software that is going to make or break this.
To ignore the technical issues that occur under common lighting conditions would be foolish too – it just won’t work as intended for many. When it does work right, it is a joy to use.
Congratulations, Justine Rose! You would have received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org. Please respond before September 12 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.