Launched only 3 weeks ago with the promise of changing the way people interact with their computers, Leap Motion has already reached the 1 million app downloads milestone through the app store that accompanies the device. Will this be the new iPhone in the world of motion-tracking technology or another hi-tech gimmick that will soon ‘leap’ into the unknown?
More than a year ago we wrote a small article announcing a San Francisco start-up’s daring project of creating a small gadget that will be “more reliable than a mouse, as reliable as a keyboard and more sensitive than a touchscreen” and which will be available for as little as $70. Although at that time it seemed like something taken from a Sci-Fi film, the company managed to raise almost $45 million by now in three rounds of investment and built some strong partnerships along the way. The latest one is with the tech giant ASUS, who wants to incorporate it into their computers. With so much traction building around this piece of hardware what can it actually do and how can it be used?
How Leap Motion (Should) Work
The small rectangular device, no bigger than a computer mouse, can be easily plugged in the USB port of your device and after you download a small piece of software your Leap Motion device is fully functional. According to the company’s specifications it can detect the position of your hand and fingers with a precision of 0.01mm within an eight cubic foot volume of space. To translate this, it means every finger twitching can be detected above the device within a space the size of a 33 inch screen in a square box.
The Leap can track any movement, pinch, wave or any other motion you can make with your fingers, hands or any other small devices such as pens. These are then translated into actual computer commands through the device’s software and the apps that you can download from their Air Space app store. In this way you can control your computer, play games, draw, compose music, create 3D graphics, turn the pages of a digital newspaper or scroll through your digital photo albums.
Drawbacks of Leap Motion
Although the launch price is slightly higher than the promoted price of $70, a device capable of doing what ‘it says on the tin’ should still be a bargain at a price of $79.99. We don’t know if the production costs are to be blamed or just the thriftiness of the investors who wanted a better return for their buck.
The real problems arise when we look at the usability of the Leap Motion device. Many ‘proud’ owners of the new controller have intensively complained about the lack of accuracy of the device. Now we are not talking about 0.01mm or 0.02mm accuracy but about not being able to recognise hand movement in normal lighting conditions or loosing track of your fingers during an activity. Some people even say that they have tried to use a pencil (as it says on the Leap Motion website) but couldn’t even register it as being in the active area (the trackable space). All these problems got even worse in certain apps, a few users talking about not even being able to draw a line without continuous interruptions and a final drawing looking more like a dash or a bunch of random dots.
If the issues surrounding the hardware weren’t enough, many Leap Motion owners also complain about the Air Space app store and the apps they can find there or maybe it would be more truthful to say “the apps that they can’t find there”. With a little more than 85 apps available, despite a software developer programme launched in October 2012 that was supposed to get a good number of apps in return, Air Space is seriously struggling to keep up with the demand for more apps, and therefore annoying many users. They are also complaining about the high price they have to pay for the majority of the apps with only about 15-20% being free to download. With these costs taken into account, a new Leap Motion owner has to get out of their pocket at least another $20-$30 to get a good app starting set, pushing the total price closer to $110 for a full Leap experience.
With many people having all kinds of accuracy and tracking problems even with the paid apps and with some of them spending hours in order to learn how to use The Leap, there’s no surprise that many conclude that it might be just an expensive toy and, despite its potential, it is not yet ready for daily use. Not even trying to get some support from the company hasn’t proved successful as apparently there wasn’t any.
Note: User comments from BestBuy, Amazon US and Amazon UK have been used for some of the issues described above.
The Potential Applications of Leap Motion
With such a wide range of issues surrounding the device, it might be a surprise for many that Leap Motion has reached the 1 million mark in their Air Space app downloads. Although it benefited from a great hype raising the interest of thousands of early adopters, the potential of The Leap is more important than any other publicity and even then the initial drawbacks and it is certainly the one thing that will determine the long term success of this piece of hardware.
Imagine Leap Motion integrated into hi-tech medical computers through which doctors can perform highly complicated and very delicate operations across continents, with the device calibrated in such a way that it can actually remove the normal shake that even surgeons have to a certain degree and eliminate any possible errors related to this. Helped by augmented reality, doctors would be able to see and control everything without being in the same room as the patient. This can also be used to drive remote cameras through very sensitive areas of the body without touching or putting any mechanical pressure on the patient.
Having a few Leap Motion devices spread across your house could help you turn on and off lights, open and close the blinds, control your TV and all other electronic devices without actually touching anything. This can be particular useful for disabled people who cannot move very well, or in buildings where contamination is a real danger (e.g. a laboratory).
Although this is already the first application of the technology it is still only at the beginning in terms of its potential. Coupled with augmented reality, The Leap could help control your character in an AR game that happens around you. Controlling radio devices (e.g. cars, planes, boats) without the need of physical controls can give you more accuracy and freedom.
3D Modelling and Graphics
It is the only device that gives full control of a 3D object on all three axes. Architects and designers can really benefit from this by getting the freedom they have always wanted when it comes to 3D modelling and 3D graphics. They can turn, scale and fully transform objects without having to use a physical 2D controller (e.g. mouse, keyboard, trackpad), thus saving precious time and allowing more creativity.
Operating heavy machinery and industrial robots with the help of a Leap Motion controller can allow better control, improved accuracy and finer detail, particularly helpful in industries that cannot completely rely on automatized methods such as luxury goods. Creating a unique car, an extraordinary piece of jewellery or a marvellous boat can receive a new meaning when aided by motion-controller technology.
This short list of potential benefits is only a small percentage of what The Leap could become, certainly overcoming any initial hardware and software drawbacks. It all comes down to the company’s response to these weaknesses. Fixing them quickly with a firmware update or a new version of the controller and accelerating the development of new apps would most likely pave the way to success.
Would you buy a Leap Motion controller and what other applications of the device can you think of? Please leave your comments in the section below.