What Leap Motion hopes to accomplish is to make the user interface disappear altogether.
AUSTIN, Texas — I'm slicing lemons and pineapples inside the popular Fruit Ninja game on an ordinary Hewlett-Packard PC. But instead of dragging my fingers along a touchscreen or using a mouse, I am wielding an ordinary chopstick as if it were a blade, out in the wide-open space in front of the computer. I could just have easily used a finger or another object.
I'm quite literally trying my hand at Leap Motion, the fascinating new motion controller peripheral for PC and Mac computers. Leap ultimately hopes to integrate its technology into computers and tablets. Consumers can get their own hands on, or more accurately above, the Leap Motion Controller that makes all this possible on May 13, when pre-orders ship. (Best Buy is also accepting pre-orders.) South by Southwest represents the first public showing of the technology.
As you hold one or both hands above the controller it senses and tracks your slightest movement or jitter, the company says. The controller can track hands that are about two feet above it or to the side, effectively creating an invisible virtual cone of detection.
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Leap Motion brings to mind the inevitable comparisons with Microsoft's Xbox Kinect. "Kinect was a great first step for this space and is great for playing games in the living room," Leap Motion CEO and co-founder Michael Buckwald says. But Buckwald claims 200 times the accuracy of Kinect, in part because the technology can track all 10 of your fingers, with no discernible latency. "It feels like the hand is in the computer," he says.
As with Kinect, Leap Motion's most immediate impact is likely to be in the game arena. But "we're equally passionate about the non-gaming applications," Buckwald says. In one early work-in-progress demonstration of the technology, I was able to strum a harp. Another demo shows off the ability to mold virtual clay with your hands.
In still another I placed a hand in front of a computer screen showing schools of fish. The fish swam to my hand. If I methodically moved my hand the fish appeared to follow. But when I made a sudden more violent motion, they scampered off.
The system will cost $79.99 and consist of the controller and cords that connect to the USB port on a PC or Mac. Leap Motion says it has already received hundreds of thousands of pre-orders.
Consumers will be able to exploit Leap's technology in a couple of ways. In the first instance you'll be able to scroll, click, zoom and control the computer's operating system through Leap Motion. "That has some unique advantages in that unlike a touchscreen, Leap does not have to be one-to-one," Buckwald says. "You can move your fingers a small amount and not have to cover the whole screen," Buckwald says.
But Leap Motion can also work with existing apps such as Fruit Ninja that have been modified or fresh apps built from the ground up. The company plans to distribute titles through an app store called Airspace, with about half the apps likely to be free. "The goal is definitely quality over quantity," Buckwald says, perhaps on the order of 100 to 200 apps around launch.
In one of the announced titles, the Sugar Rush driving game from Disney, you'll be able to steer by placing your hands on the virtual wheel. Leap Motion has also announced The Painter Freestyle app from Corel and The Weather Channel app.
But professional content tools for developers will also be made available. Autodesk plans to use Leap Motion with its AutocCAD and Maya software. About 50,000 developers have applied for Leap's developer program; about 12,000 controllers have been sent to developers so far.
"The space in the middle we're passionate about is content creation." Buckwald says. He sees an opportunity to help regular people who don't have professional training to use Leap to edit video or audio, or mold clay on a virtual pottery wheel, things that "go to people's natural desire to create, build and explore." Leap Motion might also provide tools to help people interact with Facebook.
The inside of the Leap Motion Controller contains off-the-shelf video sensors and LEDs but Buckwald says "the secret sauce is more in the software than the hardware. Our innovation is not in the silicon. " The company says that any fairly recent PC or Mac should work Leap Motion.
The speed in which Leap Motion can detect movement is one of the critical elements in creating realism. Leap Motion Vice President of Product Marketing Michael Zagorsek says, "It's not simply just a technology that detects space, it is incredibly precise and quick. Psychologically when you interact with something and there's a delay, you're constantly reminded that the computer is doing something, you're not doing it… A lack of any noticeable delay makes me part of the experience here."
What Leap Motion hopes to accomplish is to make the user interface disappear altogether. "I'm not clicking on something to do something else, I'm not touching something to do something else. There is no interface, it's just me represented here," says Zagorsek.
CEO Buckwald says universities and companies have been trying to perfect this sort of thing for 20 to 30 years. "It's not necessarily the idea that is novel, but executing is very hard."
Stay tuned for my own hands-on review, closer to launch.