The Leap Motion Controller [Review]
We've all seen Tony Stark operate his computer, up in the air, swinging his hands and grabbing virtual things from nothing in the Iron Man movies, or Tom Cruise, with his hands-free, in-the-air computer manipulation in Minority Report.
What if we told you that science has made this possible, and that the technology exists today?
Well, not the holographic controls and display, but the virtual 3D space thing where you control your computer by simply moving your hands in front of the screen.
Leap Motion has created a small USB-connected motion controller that senses your hands and fingers in the air and lets your control your Windows or Mac desktop, and they launched it last July 22. We got our hands on one, and tried it out.
It's actually a tiny thing, small and unobtrusive, as big as a Matchbox car (without the wheels), and once you connect it and place it in front of your computer screen you can hardly notice it. It's got a rubberized bottom to keep it from sliding around on your desk, aluminum sides and a smoked glass top that hides the infrared sensors and cameras.
There are two USB cables that come with it, a two-foot one for connecting to your laptop, and a longer, five-foot cable ostensibly for desktops. The cable connects to the left end of the device, and there is a green LED light that tells you the controller is working on the front right edge.
Once connected, you are prompted to download and install the software via the Leap Motion website. You are further prompted to create an account with them, and the software lets you access Airspace Home, where your downloaded apps are launched from. After that you can go to the Airspace Store on the web to get free apps, or purchase the ones for sale. The apps are made to run on Windows or Mac, but some are exclusive to one or the other.
There is an orientation app that starts up once you first run the software, and it shows you how your hands and fingers are detected - there is a virtual eight cubic foot square in front of your screen, wherein the camera detects movement of up to 1/100th of a millimeter, according to the Leap Motion website.
It generally works like the Kinect of the Xbox 360, although much more sensitive and more highly defined, if shorter in range. It detects all ten fingers, and can distinguish between the thumbs and the other digits. It even detects the joints of the fingers when you bend them, as well as when you make a fist or point with your index finger. It detects swipes of your hand, or more detailed finger wags, and can sense objects in your hand.
Unfortunately the sensor doesn't work outside of the Leap Motion apps, and if you're not running one of them you're out of luck. But there are a couple that work outside of the environment: a free app called Touchless, and one called BetterTouchTool, which allow you to manipulate your computer's basic controls, much like an "air" mouse. These two apps are still in their infancy and have far to go, but they are at least functional.
In fact, most of the apps in the Airspace Store are, once you download them, very basic and simplistic, with only a few exceptions. They aren't very full featured, for one thing, and seem to be more of demo apps to show off the Leap Motion controller than anything else. There are under a hundred at the moment, most of them games, and a few creative tools and utilities, and some media apps. We're waiting for the day when the Store has more mature and functional apps to offer.
I tried about a dozen of the free apps, and they were okay, but you tire of them quickly. There was one that let you play a virtual rock-paper-scissors game with the computer, and one that lets you disassemble and reassemble a human skull. There was another that had schools of "fish" follow your hand movements, and another that manipulates molecules around in real time.
There was one "serious" free app - The New York Times had a program that let you select and read from a limited number of stories, and Cut The Rope, that old game we all know, but modified to work with the controller. There's nothing like cutting the rope by slashing at the air - but then, there's nothing that's egging us to do it that way, either. We can do all this with our current, old-fashioned keyboard-mouse-trackpad.
I bought a few apps to see if they were any better, and the ones I chose were a little more full-featured than the rest of them. One of them, Puddle, was a game on my PS3 where you guide some liquid around obstacles, but this version was modified to work with the Leap Motion where you twirl your hand to move the screen around - and works all the better for it.
The Leap Motion is nice, but it's a solution looking for a problem. We have our keyboards, mice and trackpads, and very little to make us want to give them up. Yet. For now, the Leap Motion controller's still a wired device which makes it a bit troublesome to use. Leap Motion is partnering with Asus and other developers to embed it in future gadgets, and maybe then it'll get some more traction.
Meanwhile, the controller has a lot of potential, particularly in the software aspect of things - although we're still looking for the killer Leap Motion app that will make this device a hit. But the way things stand at the moment, that's still quite a bit off. For now, it's more a novelty than anything else, more for die-hard geeks looking for something fundamentally new.
Time will tell if we'll be more like Tony Stark controlling our devices with hands-free aplomb in the future.
The Leap Motion Controller is on sale online for around US$80, and you can find out more about it by going to their site at www.leapmotion.com.